I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?
That’s HUGE, y’all.
While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.
What does that mean for educators?
If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses. And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.
Want some help pulling some plans together? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW: It won’t come as any surprise that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.
There’s two hitches here. First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe. Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.
Viewers aren’t terrible expensive. You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order. But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.
You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website. And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.
Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations: Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills. Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.
Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period. Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.
Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party: One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events! That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.
Take solar eclipses for an example: People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it! Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.
Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures. They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.
Why not teach kids about that mythology? Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.
And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day? Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies? YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.
And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.
How much fun would THAT be?!
They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!
Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together.