Total Eclipse of the… Start?
Bonnie Tyler’s infamous tune has been resonating for months and the national solar eclipse on August 21st has been overshadowing conversations about the first week of school for many this year.
Even though The Great American Solar Eclipse is helping science educators start the school year off with the NGSS phenomena of a lifetime, there’s no need to throw shade at your science coworkers. The solar eclipse has the potential to be a bright spot all across the curriculum, and one that students won’t soon forget.
The critical pre-teaching that must occur prior to the eclipse is safety. NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN. Never. Don’t do it and be sure to tell your students not to do it. Yes, during a solar eclipse, IF you’re in totality, then you would be looking at the Moon in front of the sun, but you can’t take any chances when it comes to the safety of your students. Err on the side of caution and follow NASA’s Safety Recommendations for How to View the 2017 Solar Eclipse Safely.
As many states continue to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the way educators are approaching science education is changing in phenomenal ways. While a plethora of amazing resources are emerging to help educators explain the eclipse (NASA, National Science Teacher’s Association, Olathe School District), the NGSS shift towards leading and anchoring phenomena encourages students to explore science through a puzzling and/or discrepant event.
An eclipse may leave some of us in the dark for a moment, but what a great opportunity to enlighten minds and entertain student questions! Here are some tips and guiding questions to help students develop an understanding of the eclipse as you investigate the phenomena in your science classroom.
Elementary Students: While primary students may not fully understand planetary motion, they are able to recognize that the sun and the Moon both move.
- Ask students to think about how the sun and the Moon move on a regular basis. Is there a pattern to their movement (1-ESS1-1)?
- Do we ever see the Moon during the day? When do we see shadows? Which is closer, the sun or the Moon (5-ESS1-1)?
- By leading primary students in a conversation about their regular experiences or encouraging them to develop a model, their insights may be transferred to the sun-Moon-Earth system. A basic description of an eclipse for elementary students could be: The Moon is in between the Earth and the sun. The Moon is blocking the light of the sun and the Moon’s shadow is falling on the earth. This is like when you hold your hand up to block a bright light or when you’re standing in your parent’s shadow and temporarily can’t see the sun.
Middle School: With an understanding of planetary motion, middle school students can use the eclipse to transfer what they know and to think critically about the essential components of eclipses.
- Middle school students may grasp the placement of the sun-Moon-Earth system, but could be challenged to transfer that understanding to the conditions required in that system (i.e., the phase of the Moon, MS-ESS1-1). What phase of the Moon is necessary for a solar eclipse? (New Moon.) Why? (Because it’s up during the day.) How are the conditions of a lunar and solar eclipse similar or different?
High School and Beyond: Many people feel that total solar eclipses are rare; after all, this is the only one in this part of the nation for the next 200 years or more (thank you Google)… but why? If the understandings developed in middle school apply, why would solar eclipses not happen every day?
At the high school level, encourage students to form questions regarding this phenomenon and what makes it an exceptionality.
- Challenge students to develop a model of the orbital dynamics and discern how this impacts the viewing of eclipses (HS-ESS1-4).
- Students’ initial models could reflect the frequency of eclipses — if the Moon’s and Earth’s orbits were pure circles — with no relative tilt between the plane of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, and Earth’s orbit around the sun.
- Then, add in complexities to answer other questions. How does this frequency change when the Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle? When do you see an annular eclipse because the Moon is farther from the Earth and the umbra does not reach Earth?
- Students could then add in the relative tilts of the orbital planes and see how much rarer total eclipses actually are.
- As a final piece, students could add the rotation of the Earth to this model, or build a smaller model for the time when the Moon’s shadow is over the Earth. This would help to show why eclipses appear to move from west to east, when the moon and the sun appear to move from east to west. Thank you to physics professor Dr. Matt Richard (@C3PhysicsO), who is also my husband, for collaborating on this section.
The Cross-Curriculum Eclipse
Many districts around the country have invested in this experience for their staff and students (I’m grateful to Olathe School District for such an opportunity). On a day when science content is “the star,” how can other curricular areas still find a way to shine?
Here are some creative ideas for integrating science and the solar eclipse across the curriculum:
- Data Collection: Have students record data (temperature, luminosity, etc.) during the eclipse and then develop a graph showing the changes over time.
- Estimation: Use population statistics to estimate the percentage of the U.S. population able to experience the eclipse.
- Calculate Lunar Shadow Speed: Have students record the time the shadow is visible and then divide the average diameter of the Moon’s shadow (110 km) by the time the shadow is overhead.
- Journal: Have students keep a log describing the way the eclipse impacts their different senses. What they see is easy, but while experiencing a solar eclipse students should feel cooler temperatures, hear night creatures, and have a variety of other sensations.
- Recording History: Today when I Google “solar eclipse,” I get 52 million pieces of information in return; but imagine what it would’ve been like to experience a solar eclipse as little as 100 years ago. Encourage students to record their own histories for posterity. Have students compose an informational article for people 200 years in the future about what it felt like to experience a total eclipse, or have them journey back in time and write from the perspective of someone without our advancements in science or technology.
- Mythology: Similar to the prompt above, throughout history people have observed eclipses and constructed their own explanations. Have students write a myth or creative story about “The Day the Earth Went Dark.“
- Geography: The solar eclipse of 2017 is an exceptional event as it’s crossing the entire continental United States. Encourage students to examine a map and identify the states and cities in the path of totality.
- Examining History: Look at the history of eclipses in the United States and create a timeline aligning their occurrence with other important world events. You might have students research to find out what, if any, popular culture or primary sources exist about solar eclipses during each time period.
- Eclipse Culture & Mythology: Have students examine the mythology of ancient cultures surrounding eclipses.
As The Great American Solar Eclipse sweeps across the nation, our students will be stepping into our classrooms, excited to begin a new school year. Whether you have the opportunity to stand together on August 21st — looking towards the most important star in our solar system — or plan to relive this historic event when your students finally arrive, be sure to remind them that they’re the stars in our classrooms and it’s time for them to shine!