Teaching the Eclipse at the Last Minute

Let's say you're a teacher just getting wind of this upcoming solar eclipse. You hear it is a great educational hook that everyone will be talking about, but August 21 is at the opening bell of the school year and you aren't really prepared. Inexperience is excusable, for likely none of the staff at your school has integrated a live solar eclipse into a school day in his/her entire career. This natural spectacle will be the national buzz and social media darling without exception, yet you don't want to be on the sidelines watching an unprecedented opportunity pass. How do you get your kids in the game?

Using Eclipse Glasses, or Solar Shades

If you're quick enough, you can still order some eclipse glasses for your students. Maybe you're lucky and already have access to ISO-approved eyewear but don't have a plan about how to use them. Not everyone needs their own pair, for the partial eclipse takes awhile and the kids can share the shades.

In response to one school's inquiry (they had planned on taking the students outside once near mid-eclipse), I proposed a more intimate connection with the sun-moon-earth alignment.

I strongly encourage you to give your students the rare opportunity to witness the progression of the solar event. This isn’t a look-one-time snapshot to be viewed as a singular social media post. Perhaps you can even practice looking at the sun in advance before August 21 with the kids. When the big day comes, you want to give them a visceral experience in science.

One safe way to have a group of people look at the sun is to have them line up with shades in hand, bodies toward the sun, but looking at their feet. Now, put the shades on while still looking down. Slowly lift your head up until you see the sun. That way you set up the expectation that viewing the sun shouldn’t occur willy nilly. There’s a procedure, an acceptable practice for them to do this safely.

Here’s a possible scenario for you and the staff. Get the basics out of the way before the eclipse begins August 21 so the sheer novelty of wearing eclipse glasses is lessened and the genuine observation can begin. Maybe decorate the eclipse glasses so they take more ownership in the optical tool.

With eclipse glasses, look at the sun before the eclipse. Start asking questions right away. "Describe what you see. What’s the sun's shape? What about color? Is that the sun’s true color, do you think, or an artifact of the shades? Can you see anything else other than the sun?" On August 21, schedule multiple but time-limited trips into the sunshine with shades in hand. Before the eclipse even starts, ask them to describe what they see through the shades. (Not much, just a round sun.) As first contact nears, ask for them to call out when they can see the first encroachment of the sun. It may take a few minutes after the predicted time to be discernible. If it were a clock face, where on the sun do they see it? What does it look like? Describe what you see. Boom, you’re done. Go back inside or into a shady area where they won’t be distracted. Draw what they saw. If you have the eclipse glasses with plain white cardboard frame, mark right on the paper. Thirty minutes later, go back out. Describe what you see. What has changed? Can you describe any motion since the first views? Go back inside or into shade and draw the recent sight. Any predictions on what to expect next? As maximum eclipse approaches, repeat the observations and dialogue and discussions. Ask, will the sun be completely blocked soon? And then continue to do this through the end of the eclipse. Then you have something to work with. Not a static snapshot, but a dynamic compilation from a natural spectacle. As they look at their drawings, ask what their observations indicate. Describe the “movie” they’ve illustrated. This will likely be the most observed celestial spectacle in US history. You don’t want the kids saying they were holed up in a classroom because of fear. (To read about the frustration of an astronomer who was forced inside for the duration of an eclipse in his youth, read Tyler Norgren’s book Sun Moon Earth.) Please encourage your team to devise a scheme that allows youths to witness, record, share, and celebrate the progression of a celestial spectacle. Even if for only brief glimpses with solar shades, the students should see the sequence of the eclipse. This is the essence of the predictive nature of science and the predictions of astronomy—not the predictions of astrology. This is why they take science classes! By understanding our cosmos we can predict its behavior and map out strategies for living in a dynamic world. This August 21 event is why we teach. Sure, be safe, but go all in.

Let's Talk About Projections

Another great way to experience a solar eclipse is through the subtle elegance of a projection. You may remember long ago sticking your head inside a big cardboard box that had a pinhole at one end that projects a tiny image of the sun onto the other end. Before I describe it further, let's abandon that specific technique. There's a risk people will use the box improperly and look out the tiny pinhole itself--not safe. Better alternative projection methods exist.

A good start is Ken Miller's Spot Mirror Projection. A veteran leader of eclipse expeditions, Ken advises people heading to the path of totality to be self sufficient--pack a mirror, lots of drinking water, a hula hoop, a shower curtain, and a bucket. For the rest of us who expect to see a partial solar eclipse, let's start with the mirror.

All you do is cover a hand-held mirror with paper, say, with a big envelope, except for a spot about the size of a dime. Aim the mirror so it reflects sunlight above your spectators heads onto a distant surface, preferably light-colored and in the shade. Voila! There will be a large projection for all to see the current status of the eclipse. Simple, cheap, and safe.

The embodiment of hands-on science is literally to use your hands. Simply cross your fingers (as demonstrated by Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society) and notice projections of the eclipsed sun on a piece of paper.

Any small hole will suffice. For example, use a colander to project dozens of images. Yes, your pasta rinser is an excellent science tool. Or look under a leafy tree. Each of the gaps between the leaves or holes within the leaves themselves will project the sun onto the ground--we're talking hundreds of little solar crescents underfoot.

You can also create a souvenir of the eclipse with NASA's pinhole projector called the Eclipse Fan. After all, it's late August and you're under the sun. Or have the kids write something, like their name, on a piece of paper and then punch a bunch of holes along the pencil line. They'll then be able to project their name with a bunch of solar crescents onto a surface. More stuff that's simple, cheap, and safe, not to mention fun and able to be done on short notice.

Carpe Diem

Yes, seize this big day for educators and learners alike. It's not too late to get involved if you're just finding out about it. If you cannot take your kids outside (or it's overcast), you can watch streaming video. For example, NASA is hosting a livestream at: nasa.gov/eclipselive. NASA's eclipse website also suggests homeschooling activities and music and citizen science projects and more. And if you miss this event, you've got until April 8, 2024, until the next solar eclipse engulfs the United States and stirs our imagination anew.

I list more eclipse links at www.nightwise.org/eclipse-2017.

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