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A biker rides by a sign about the planet Venus on the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy's Solar System Walking trail along the Tennessee Riverwalk.

If you've spent any time on the Tennessee Riverwalk near the Hubert Fry Center this summer, you may have noticed that parts of the path take you into space.

It's not a time warp. It's the new Solar System Walking Trail, where you can easily visit Earth's closest neighbors — Mercury, Venus and Mars — and with a little more time and trekking even reach Neptune, about 3 miles down the trail.

Before school ended this spring, seventh-graders at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy created signs describing each planet and its place in the solar system. Then they placed them to scale, in reference to the sun, along the trail. The goal was to give a realistic perspective of the distance between the planets.

Students scaled down the solar system to fit within a 5K, about 3 miles, says math teacher Angela Kemp. "We took 1 centimeter on Earth to represent 10,000 kilometers of space in the solar system."

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The sun sign is the reference point for the location of every other sign representing a planet on the Solar System Walking Trail.

Local printing company FastSigns donated the markers, says Maureen Davis, programming specialist for Hamilton County Parks and Recreation. The partnership between the school and the parks department happened when the school approached the Riverwalk's superintendent about allowing students to do the project.

Hamilton County employees installed the sign, but the students did the research, writing and drawings, says Davis.

"They did an excellent job," Davis says of the students. "They did a lot of research. They looked into the mythology of how the plants got named. They definitely used the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering, math]. They made sure everything that they were studying covered the STEM subjects. And they were excellent at presenting it to the public."

It took trial and error to come up with a scale that they could manage that would show the planets' relationship in distance.

"When you buy a solar-system model or when you look at it in a book, it's never made or drawn to scale, says Justin Booker, the school's director of community engagement. "The planets are actually much further or much closer than it is shown, and so that is what they were trying to show to patrons who use the Riverwalk."

The solar system starts by the Fry Fishing Center and goes south toward Ross's Landing. The last three signs end near the Hamilton County Election Commission, says Davis.

The students started the project as sixth-graders. Teachers who orchestrated the assignment integrated all of their core subjects, including science, math, English, language arts and social studies.

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The Solar System Walking Trail begins with the Sun at the Hubert Fry Center/Rock Creek. It ends with Pluto on Riverport Road behind Burger King. Earth is located between the boat ramp and the navel reserve center. (Map of the Tennessee Riverpark from Hamilton County Parks and Recreation)

"So what we did is we created signs on the Riverwalk that describe each planet from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, all the way down to Pluto," says Kemp. (Space enthusiasts will recall that Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006.)

Learning about the planets fulfilled the students' science curriculum. Students did math equations to figure out a way to show the distance between the planets.

"What most people don't know is that the inner planets are very close together. The outer planets are very far," says Kemp.

From the sun, it's not very far to get to Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. They're inner planets. They're very close together, relatively speaking.

But to get to the outer planets, walkers or joggers will have quite a while before reaching them. That's the science students want to show, says Kemp.

The students used math to scale down the distances, and they discussed the Greek mythological gods associated with the different planets to incorporate social studies.

"The girls got to be a part of every part of this project," Kemp says.

Contact Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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