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Alumni collaborate with students on children's book

'From Blue to Red' now in CBE classrooms across Calgary

Ross McIntyre, Jeff Turner, and Samantha Whelan Kotkas with hard copies of From Blue to Red, the result of a collaboration between students, teachers, artists and a couple of astronauts. Photo by Betty Rice

When writing a children’s book, how do you know it will be a success?

One way is to collaborate with students in the process, and that’s exactly what three University of Calgary alumni did when they undertook a project to produce a book about space exploration for elementary students. From Blue to Red is a hit, and today can be found in every Calgary Board of Education (CBE) classroom in the city.

It’s collaboration in every sense of the word.

The book project began a couple of years ago when Lord Beaverbrook High School music teacher Ross McIntyre (B Mus ’87, B Ed ’97) met astronaut Robert Thirsk at an event. Their conversation naturally turned to space exploration and more specifically, the possibility of humans making the long journey to Mars, as world space agencies are hoping to send a mission to the Red Planet in 2033. During their chat, Thirsk, who attended Beaverbrook, encouraged McIntyre to tell a story about space exploration, and he offered to help.

McIntyre says the timing is perfect for today’s elementary school aged children, who could easily be one of those taking part in a Mars mission. “They love that and get very excited when I ask them if they want to be the first human to step out of the landing vehicle onto the rusty, red soil of Mars and look out into the Martian night sky and see the blue twinkle of Earth in the distance.”

Enthused with the idea of writing a book to further connect with students, McIntyre contacted Samantha Whelan Kotkas (B Mus ’93). Kotkas had been a student in McIntyre’s high school music classes, and went on the study music at the University of Calgary, where the two reconnected.  They put their heads together, and with the support and assistance of Beaverbrook Principal Jeff Turner (M Ed ’93), they pitched their idea to the Canadian Space Agency for funding, and were thrilled when they got the go-ahead to produce a book and on-line materials for children.

Engaging Beaverbrook students in all aspects of the production for the book was key; working with a creative team, 450 students with interests in music, art, science, English, French and communication technology researched, wrote, edited, illustrated and composed the music for the illustrated hardcover, audio and eBook.

“From Blue to Red is the first time I have witnessed an interdisciplinary learning activity in high school that was truly meaningful, highly engaging and resulted in significant learning by all involved,” says Turner, who is also a sessional instructor in the Werklund School of Education. “Students, through support of their team members, developed enduring understandings, new insights, stronger problem solving skills, increased self-confidence and self-efficacy, and a passion for learning in new areas.”

“This was a true synthesis of multiple disciplines work towards a common goal.”

“The students are the heart and soul of From Blue to Red, “ says Kotkas.  “It was their enthusiasm, dedication and hard work that made this project come to life.  The energy in the room when the students were working on 'From Blue to Red' was electric.”  

As an added highlight, three Canadian astronauts (Julie Payette, David Saint-Jacques and Thirsk) narrate the book, along with acclaimed Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall.

The book was produced in hard cover, and there’s also an electronic book, available in English and French and free to anyone in the world. The e-book contains interactive elements, including a “fun facts” segment narrated by Thirsk, and there are video clips where kids ask Payette and Thirsk questions about living in space.

From Blue to Red was awarded the 2013 Children's Book of the Year by Alberta Publishers, and this fall McIntyre presented the book to the International Astronautical Congress in Beijing.

Kotkas and McIntyre continue to speak to school groups about the book, and they haven’t ruled out another opportunity to undertake a new project. “We’d love to create more experiences like this so students and educators will benefit from this type of learning,” says Kotkas.  

McIntyre agrees. “Who knows? There may be another project out there that we can tackle. In my extensive career as an educator, I certainly feel that this was the finest educational experience I have been involved in."