Category Archives: Earth Science

Tips on Teaching Astronomy

An image of the 8.21.17 eclipse, taken by the author of this post.

The smartphone operating system will dictate which apps you use. However, many of the apps are similar, so they can be used the same way. Having the students load a sky map of some sort, will allow most of the kids not to get bored if you do an observing session at night with limited telescopes. Better yet, include an app that detects the position of the International Space Station, and plan an observing night that coincides with a flyby of the ISS. Students and parents always marvel at the sight of it as it brightly passes overhead. Passing Iridium satellites can also be predicted and observed.

If I’m teaching astronomy, I always ask the students to load a program onto their laptops, it’s called Stellarium. Stellarium allows students to see their sky at night, for that date and time (or any date and time), and illustrate it many ways. It also shows other cultural constellations, not just western culture. Stellarium can be used for H.W. Assignments, teaching constellations, mythology, teaching star circles, and learning about deep space object classification systems. Another laptop program that’s free and is a great tool for showing our place in the universe is Where is M13? It is a program that maps out our galaxy, and most of the visible celestial objects in deep space that you might discuss. It is also useful for showing the structure of our galaxy.

Now telescopes, if you are considering purchasing equipment the first thing you should buy is a solar telescope. Meade is producing a low-cost solar telescope called the PST. If you are new to solar observing, you can easily see sunspots, prominences, and solar flares with these solar telescopes during the day! For night, skip the refractors, because good ones are a fortune, and cheap ones are good for the moon only. A planet will look like a small dot, and the planet will rotate away before a student has a chance to see. At night, diameter counts, and the cheapest way to get diameter is with reflecting or Newtonian style telescopes. A 10” or 12” reflecting telescope will not break the budget and is not too heavy to move. If you get an equivalent catadioptric, it’s a back breaker and very expensive. Used equipment can be found online, so if your district is willing to but that way, you can save money by shopping on Cloudy Nights.com. Trussed reflectors are a little cheaper than catadioptric but more expensive than Dobsonians (Newtonian version), however, they are easy to set up and are light. OK, you keep hearing me mention catadioptric. I’ll save this one for last, as they are expensive. I just saw new 9.25-inch listing for $3000.00. That is a starting point, they get more expensive. They are also heavy and delicate. The advantage is that most catadioptric are compact in length, are GoTO, and most have a GPS to do self-alignment. Having a big heavy mount is important for these instruments, otherwise they will vibrate and so will your object in the eyepiece will too.

Just a few more tricks, I use Google Earth and a solar system scaling Excel program (Google it) to create a scale model of the solar system if the sun has a 9” diameter. I usually will have the class on the athletic field to build the model. I like using solar system and constellation flash cards during lessons as a quick segue into lessons. Most of my students love Scale of the Universe, and I as a teacher love UNL Astronomy Simulations. Well, that’s it for now, enjoy the rest of the summer and don’t forget the August 21st solar eclipse!

The Science Event of the Summer

It is difficult to get the Sun, Moon and Earth to align for a total solar eclipse. The last total solar eclipse to cross a large portion of the United States was in 1979. The last annular solar eclipse to cross New York was May 10, 1994, when I was in 8th grade. That was amazing to see and since then, I have waited patiently for 2017’s totality event.
After a year of planning our eclipse trip, our path is set. On August 21, 2017, we will be in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, northeast of Nashville, nearly on the centerline of totality! There is a lot to do in the area, and when I searched for hotel rooms in late April, there were still many available.
Originally, we intended to view the eclipse from Carbondale, Illinois. A shady hotel cancelled the reservations I made a year in advance, and left us scrambling for a new location. Luckily, it is not too late to find a room, or a campsite, and see one of nature’s rare and beautiful events.

Eclipse Resources:

General Eclipse Info and Maps: www.greatamericaneclipse.com 

NASA’s Eclipse Page: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html 

Rice Space Institute’s Eclipse Page (sign up for the eclipse listserv!): http://space.rice.edu/eclipse/ 

Totality App (from Big Kid Science): Free!

Safe Viewing Practices:

NASA GSFC’s Eclipse Safety Page (with links ranging from eye protection to taking travel precautions): https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety 

Purchase your Eclipse Eyewear ASAP, before they sell out! https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/eclipse-viewing/ 

Eclipse Lesson Plans:

NSTA Eclipse Booklet: http://static.nsta.org/extras/solarscience/SolarScienceInsert.pdf

Big Kid Science Lesson Ideas: http://www.bigkidscience.com/eclipse/classroom-activities/

NASA/JPL Eclipse Yardstick Model: https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/download-view.cfm?Doc_ID=327

Other NASA Activities: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/activities 

Eclipse Animations:

Eclipse as viewed from the Earth, accounting for the Earth’s topography and Lunar Rim features from the LRO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJgXaqW3md8 

2017 Eclipse Shadow Cones (my students thought this was so cool!): https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4321 

Other NASA Animations (a treasure trove of resources from the Scientific Visualization Studio): https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/index.html 

What will you see from New York?

Depending on your latitude, you will see 70% (southern New York) or less of the Sun covered by the New Moon this coming August.

Finding a Place to Stay on Eclipse Day:

Camping (and Glamping) at the Oregon SolarFest: https://www.oregonsolarfest.com/ 

Casper, Wyoming Eclipse Festival: http://eclipsecasper.com/ 

Nebraska Sandhills: https://2017nebraskaeclipse.com/ 

St. Louis, Missouri Eclipse Day: http://www.missourieclipse2017.com/ 

Tennessee State Parks: http://tnstateparks.com/activities/solar-eclipse-at-the-park-2017 

Mount Juliet, TN (where we will be stationed): http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/wilson/mt-juliet/2017/02/27/mt-juliet-jumps-city-view-total-solar-eclipse/98274534/ 

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What if you miss the eclipse this summer?

The next American total solar eclipse will be Monday, April 8, 2024. This will take a different path from the 2017 eclipse, with the Moon’s shadow crossing over far western and northern New York State! We will have to work on our local school boards to plan our spring break that week, so we are all able to travel for the event.