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November 1, 2019

What Time Is It? Telling Time and Teaching the Time Zones

Keeping track of time zones can trip up adults, so it’s no wonder some students struggle to learn them. For teachers, breaking down why time zones exist and how they work today can effectively engage students with practical information and generate a lasting interest in science.

History of Time Zones

To understand how time zones work, it’s helpful to look back to a time when people didn’t use them. The more we understand about the origin of time zones, the more we can see their importance today.

According to Matt Rosenberg of ThoughtCo, people didn’t really consider what the time would be in different places outside of their local town. Instead, the clockmaker of a town or village would be responsible for establishing the time for that specific area. The result was massive confusion for travelers.

With the advent of travel and trade by railroad, people across the world realized different localized times were too confusing and harmful to shipping goals. And they needed a solution. In 1878, Sir Sandford Fleming from Canada developed a comprehensive system that split the world into 24 different time zones. Almost immediately, the impressive and thorough framework was lauded as a groundbreaking tool to increase trade and travel efficiency. Fleming’s model was adopted internationally at the International Prime Meridian Conference in 1884.

Classroom Activity: Have your students research the history of time zones. One way to do it is to assign groups to key terms, dates, and people. Groups can present their findings to the class.

The Science of Time Zones

Studying time zones has more to do with Earth science than it might at first seem. As the Earth spins on its axis, the sun shines on a portion of the globe at a time. Because of this rotation, early morning in the United States is the middle of the afternoon in France, bedtime in Thailand, and the next day in Australia. Rotation also accounts for the different seasons. You can use this platform as a gateway into learning more about the position of the Earth as it revolves around the sun.

Classroom Activity: Show students an illustration, model, or video of the sun shining on Earth. Why might it be light in the United States and dark in Japan? You can use a day and night world map to test students’ hypotheses of where it currently might be light and dark. As a bonus, discuss seasons. Why is it winter in the Northern Hemisphere during the December-February months but summer during the June-August months? Our post on winter solstice activities can help your students learn about the seasons in different parts of the world, connecting seasons, weather, and time zones.

Time Zone Fun Facts

One of the most tried-and-true ways to get students interested in a new concept is to throw some fun facts their way. Fortunately, there are several for time zones! Here are some to get your students engaged from the start:

  • Daylight savings time has nothing to do with science. It’s a law in the United States, and not every state partakes. It’s designed to allow people, particularly farmers who need the time to plant crops for spring, to enjoy more sunlight. 
  • There’s an imaginary line of demarcation called the International Date Line, and if you cross it going west, it will be the following day. Australia, as an example, is a day ahead of the United States.
  • Of the 24 time zones in the world, the United States is spread out among nine of them.

Classroom Activity: Make a game out of the above facts and any others you or your students find. For instance, have your students guess which states don’t use daylight savings time. Or, for the final fact, give them a map of the world and have them color which time zones touch the United States.

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