The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter #1 - May 15, 2021

Astronomy Education Articles, Teachniques, News, Research

The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter is a successor to the magazine of that name that ran from 2009-2015 which contained articles and teaching tips for those who teach astronomy in schools at all levels, including home-school teachers.  This newsletter is free during an introductory launch period after which is will be a premium newsletter for subscribers only.  Note:  Only links in blue are active in the prototype.

I am Dr. Larry Krumenaker, a long-time astronomer writer and educator.  Welcome to my Universe!

In This Issue:

  • Article--Software Review: WebbVR

  • Connections to the Night Sky: Global Astronomy Month, Astronomers without Borders, and More

  • Astronomical Teachniques — Three things are all it takes to learn about the universe….

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners

  • The Galactic Times Newsletter Highlights


Article—Software Review: WebbVR

            The James Webb Space Telescope, usually called the JWST or just the Webb, is a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, first proposed way back in 1996(!) and 14 years past its proposed first launch date.  It is supposed to go up in this year, 2021, to a spot behind the Moon, a million miles from Earth.  Unlike Hubble, it will observe in the infrared and it will require a huge sunscreen to prevent it from being essentially fried by the Sun’s light, not much diminished at what seems to be that far distance. 

            The Institute that will operate the Telescope came out with a Virtual Reality program touted to be used as an educational tool.  Though it dates from 2018, I first heard about it at the January 2021 American Astronomical Society meeting where a Zoom-based demonstration was attempted.  Called WebbVR, it is on the workings of the telescope and also on the science it will explore—planets in the solar system, black holes, protoplanetary disks, stellar evolution, and exoplanets.   I spent part of an evening and much of an afternoon, examining the program with a colleague, Dr. Jonathan Crymes, a former long-time high school physics teacher, to see if it was useful for teaching astronomy concepts. The program is designed specifically for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. We made it work through a laptop with a high data cable and Oculus Quest VR headset.

            A quick summary:  There is some incredible graphics, some of which is just as good on the laptop screen as it is in 3-D goggles, other than a distortion effect of being flattened on the screen.  The 3-D aspects are primarily useful for changing your points of view around different objects, going up and over something, and in some cases, ‘traveling’ to an object.  Your two hand controls are used for either controlling your traveling motions, or selecting your options on visible control panels or clickable targets. 

            The problems are that some of the functions seem like the Telescope itself---unfinished.  And unchecked in quality control.  Others are spectacular.

There are five main areas:  Introduction, Solar System, Protoplanetary Disks, The Galaxy, and Exoplanets.  There is a Museum Mode and Regular Mode, but the former did nothing different. Perhaps it requires a different kind of machine? All it does is put a menu on the screen, but it doesn’t react or work with the VR device. There is a toggle for Spanish. 

            The Introduction is all about the Space Telescope.  You start out with an Earth View, then a three-dimensional Earth-Moon-Telescope model.  THEN you can hit START.  When you get to the Telescope, it is as if you get there when it first arrives at its observing site itself, and you watch it unfold almost like a flower.  Cool!  Then you have several options to explore:  How big is the Webb?  What does Webb see? How does the Webb stay cold?

            The first option is the coolest part of doing this in VR.  You can fly in all directions around the Telescope.  Your right-hand control acts as a rocket and when you aim the ‘rocket exhaust’ it moves you in the opposite direction of the thrust, as it should.  It takes practice to astronautically fly, so make sure you are standing, not sitting for this one, and have lots of room around you.  BUT….it does violate the Law of Inertia.  You ONLY move when your rocket is on.  You come to a complete stop the moment the rocket is turned off. No momentum is kept up.  No opposite burn to stop.  But with practice you can literally fly rings around the Webb, and you can put a car, the Hubble, or an elephant—all scaled appropriately—next to the Webb and get some idea of its true size.  

            Let’s look at the Solar System.  The graphics of the planets, upper atmospheric or ground-level surfaces, are truly beautifully rendered.  The planets do rotate.  But not all the speeds, or directions, are accurate.  Venus is spinning wrongly, for example.  The number of moons is often way off.  You can input your Earth weight and get your weight on the planets and their moons….sometimes.  We have photos of Pluto, but the rendering here shows no edge craters and no crater depth, just…art.

            Perhaps there is something to see with planets in other systems?  Let’s go to the Exoplanets Menu!  There we find three actual labs!  Though it doesn’t actually say so, they all appear to explore the same star system, even though you move through ‘space’ to different places to do the labs.  Each lab is using a different technique—radial velocity, transits, direct visual observation—to find and measure exoplanets in a five-planet system. And here we find they didn’t do some edit checking.  The system is variously called Estella….and Estrella.  In what should be an unforgiveable mistake, they also in a text box, misspell the word ‘telescope’ as ‘telescop’.  In another text box, a comma is missing. In a menu to get here, the labs are out of order.  I hope the real Telescope’s controls are better quality controlled…..

            Perhaps the worst Menu option is on the Lives of Stars.  One sees a star field in all directions around you, with stars of various masses marked.  But you don’t actually use them.  Instead, by a complicated means, you have to bring up a graphic overlay, move a slider around and hit play to make the various masses evolve, some quicker, some slower and watch the sky change as stars grow, shrink and explode all over.  Messy.

            On the other hand, there are two really good demonstrations, which really don’t require VR except to set up.  The first is in the Protoplanetary Disk Formation area.  There you can see a clump of debris in the Disk and shoot small pebbles at or near it.  Because all of them have such tiny gravities, any that hit just stick together and the clump grows.  But if you shoot to the side, you can watch the pebbles get arced off its straight path and spirally orbit around the main rock until it gently lands.  As the clump grows, its gravity visibly increases.

Then there is the Black Hole demonstration.  You start out at the Hole’s equator and, like some sci-fi movie, you can aim some glowing fireballs at it or near it and watch them go around it at first, but eventually hit the Event Horizon and explode.  For a physics teacher, though, what is FAR more impressive, is to take a trip to somewhere above the Black Hole’s equatorial plane as fast as possible after shooting a fireball off to the side of the Hole, and watch the fireball settle into an ever-tightening, and precessing, elliptical orbit, shrinking and rotating its narrow ends.  Best demonstration of a precessing orbit I’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately for the gee-whiz aspect, the programmers didn’t include any fireworks for when the fireball hits the Event Horizon from above.  Oooops…..

Net result:  WebbVR, like its namesake Telescope, is incomplete and unfinished, with some useful demos, but needs to be quality checked before they launch it for real.  Use it for teaching how the telescope will work in the cold of space and how big it is, for that precessing orbit demo and how planets and planetesimals form in nebulae in space.  Yeah, some of the exoplanets demos, done right and set up in advance might be of some use, but as a lab, they probably will be more frustrating than educational.  For teaching about stellar evolution, or the solar system, perhaps as an intro ‘wow’ visual only.

WebbVR: The James Webb Space Telescope Virtual Experience on Steam (steampowered.com)

Connections to the Night Sky

Global Astronomy Month

Global Astronomy Month (GAM), in its 12th year, is organized by Astronomers Without Borders (AWB), and is the world's largest annual global celebration of astronomy. Each GAM brings new cosmic ideas and new opportunities, bringing night sky enthusiasts together worldwide to celebrate One People, One Sky.  This year’s programming highlights include:

One Sky, One Postcard AstroArts Project

            Participate in an innovative astronomical art project.  A global collaboration during the pandemic, bringing together people across all borders who have dealt with isolation and the lack of contact for many months. In a year where so much has been digital, share an opportunity to create something physical.

            One Sky, One Postcard is a call-out to artists, poets, designers, amateur astronomers and pros, to share artwork, poetry or images of the night and day skies, in order to create a collective scrapbook of stellar art which will eventually become a traveling art exhibit, a giant mosaic image, a coffee table book, and more! 

            Link: https://my.astronomerswithoutborders.org/programs/astroarts/new-page

            Astronomers Without Borders (AWB)’s wide ranging programs connects art and culture with astronomy in exciting ways, including ethno-astronomy-themed webinars and the annual Cosmic Concert with original music composed and performed by Giovanni Renzo.  Other AWB partner programs: Measuring light pollution worldwide in Globe at Night, advocating to value and protect of dark skies with International Dark Sky Week, and classrooms discovering asteroids in the International Asteroid Search Campaign, and astro-themed podcasts from Cosmic Savannah, and more.  Learn more about GAM 2021 events on the web site at www.gam-awb.org . AWB's YouTube Channel.  Global Astronomy Month background info:

https://my.astronomerswithoutborders.org/programs/global-astronomy-month

Astronomical Teachniques

Go outside. Any night when there are stars in the sky.  Doesn’t matter if it is a light-polluted sky, as long as you can see SOME stars.  (In other words, don’t observe under street lights, in lit parking lots, etc., but you don’t have to go into the dark country to do this.)

            Look around. Pick a star to be your own.  Don’t tell anyone with you which one it is.  Don’t point it out.  Same for them. Try not to pick one someone else might pick.

            Got one?  Pick another.  Try again not to pick one someone else has.

            How are you going to tell them apart?  How are you going to identify which is yours and which is someone else’s?  How are you going to do this….if you are not allowed to point to it?

            Listen to the words you use to answer the questions I just asked.  In all likelihood, you used words that had something to do with position, with brightness, and maybe with color.  For the first, you probably used some terms that referred to some other object you and your companions could both recognize and agree on.  A house on the horizon, a mountain point in the distance, a street light on a pole, a tree with a certain shape.  A certain fraction of the way above the ground, too.  Maybe a degree amount if you both are good with angles. 

            You might also have use a more obvious star pattern, or more obvious star and then made some kind of angle and distance reference to that.  Regardless of whether you measured to a celestial or earthly object, you HAD to use a measurement and a reference point.  There was no absolute address to place your star, without pointing to it.  Location.  It is a relative thing.

            For brightness, you might have used a term for how big it appeared.  That is because the brighter something appeared, the more our eye likes to fan out the light.  Bigness is an optical illusion for points of light in the sky.  If you look around now, you’ll see a direct correlation between ‘big’ and ‘bright’ but the bigness of a light in the sky isn’t how big the object REALLY is; it is just an effect of our eyes.  Nevertheless, brightness is an attribute to note.  If you want to be sure you can claim a star for yourself in this exercise, don’t claim a bright one!  It is too easy for someone else to claim it, too!

            Color….that’s more subtle.  You can see hints of blue, white, yellow, and orange and red, but nothing terrible blatant, except maybe white ones.  That’s because our eyes only see color when the light is strong and intense, and lights in the sky are rarely either.  To see star colors, binoculars are actually better for that for unaided eyes.  You may wonder about the quick color flashes you see in the light as stars twinkle.  That’s just the atmosphere playing with you.  The star’s actual color is the overall average, not those instantaneous flashes.

            What does this have to do with astronomy?  It turns out that in one fashion or another, everything we know about the universe comes from our study of these three things we see about the lights in the sky.  EVERYTHING.  The positions of the stars, exactly, and how they change over time.  The brightnesses, which ultimately lead to how they are a function of the star’s mass and distance.  Color leads us to the star’s temperature, which leads us to its spectrum and mass and composition, and hence to other factors.  Even things like X-rays from objects are a ‘color’ function, just a color we don’t visualize.

            What you see when you look at the stars at night is more than just star stories.  It is a physics lesson, too.  And using ‘teachniques’ as I call them, is telling the stories of stars themselves.  That’s what this column will do in the future.  This was just Lesson One. 

            Now enjoy helping each other find each other’s stars, without pointing, just by using brightness, color and location.

The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners

What’s in the scholarly astronomy education journals you can use NOW.

**1.  Here is a somewhat distressing article.  MOOCs—massive open online courses—in astronomy may be showing that the educational system, in K-12 and undergraduate levels, isn’t doing the job well at inculcating scientific knowledge in students.

“Science knowledge and attitudes of lifelong learners in an astronomy massive open online course”, Chris Impey, Martin Formanek, Sanlyn Buxner & Matthew Wenger.   International Journal of Science Education, Part B, (2021).  DOI: 10.1080/21548455.2021.1903114

Quoting from the article introduction and conclusions---

            “Science literacy has been a major concern of both scientists and educators for more than two Decades.  Although there is no single definition of science literacy, there is a consensus that citizens need science literacy to make informed decisions. This includes a basic understanding of science knowledge, the ability to distinguish science from non-science, and understanding how to use scientific thinking.  Reports from surveys by the National Science Foundation, published every two years by the National Science Board, show that adult science literacy, comprising basic science knowledge and understanding of scientific processes, has been low and stable for several decades in the United States.”  The authors’ MOOCs in astronomy “enroll adult, free-choice learners who are typically studying for personal rather than professional reasons.

            The goal of this research was to answer the following questions:

(1) What level of general science knowledge do MOOC learners have upon entering our course and how does it compare with undergraduate non-science majors?

(2) What attitudes and beliefs about science do MOOC students have entering our course, and how does it compare with undergraduate non-science majors?

(3) How do the responses of MOOC students on open-ended questions compare to those of undergraduate non-science majors and science experts?

(4) What do the MOOC students and undergraduate student responses to open-ended questions tell us about the breadth and depth of their science knowledge?

Excerpts from the summary of results

The significant results of this study can be summarized as follows:

Adults in an online astronomy class outperformnon-science college freshmen and sophomores on a science literacy test, and they score slightly higher than adults with advanced degrees from studies by the NSF.

            Adult online learners give longer answers than college students to an open-ended question about science, and in both populations, the length of the answers is correlated with science literacy score.

           The college students more often gave answers that showed they thought radiation was harmful or dangerous.

            The adult online learners have more positive attitudes towards science and technology and lower levels of belief in superstition and pseudoscience than college students.

            College students show stronger faith-based beliefs than online astronomy learners, and for both groups, higher science literacy corresponds to weaker faith-based beliefs.

            Scientists convey a nuanced view of the process of science, attributing the words creative, innovation, imagination, and intuition to doing science, while those words are rarely mentioned by non-science students.

**2.  “Design and validation of an instrument to test students’ understanding of the apparent motion of the Sun and stars”. Bakaert, van Winckel, Van Dooren, Steegen and De Cock Physical Review Physics Education Research 16, 020135 (2020).

A concept test developed on sky motions might be useful to see if your students actually are getting what moves, what doesn’t, and how they correlate with position and time of year.  It also makes a good check on the teacher being sure they are covering all the motions, in or out of a planetarium.

Here are the concepts you need to have:

I  Apparent motion of the Sun:

Daily Sun position changes: Sun’s path

Sun culmination changes during a year

Sunrise and sunset positions change during a year

Sun culmination depends on observer position

Sunrise and sunset position depend on observer position

Speed of the apparent motion of the Sun changes during a year

II  Apparent motion of a star:

Nightly star position changes: star trail

Star culmination does not change during a year

Star-rise and star-set positions do not change during a year

Star culmination depends on observer position

Star-rise and star-set position depend on observer position

Speed of the apparent motion of a star does not change during a year

III  Seasons

Colder and warmer periods on a specific location during a year, due to Earth’s revolution.

IV  Sky map changes on a specific location during a year, due to Earth’s revolution


In Our Other Newsletter, The Galactic Times:

  • Astronomy News

  • Sky Planning Calendar

  • The Galactic Times Podcast

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life

Subscribe to it here! It’s Free!


Coming Soon!

Learning Astronomy Under The Northern Stars – A 365-Night Per Year Textbook

Use the stars that are ALWAYS visible to understand basic astronomy, stellar evolution, galactic structure, with the naked eye and common binoculars.  EBook (late spring) and print book coming (summer).  Detail description and advance orders coming soon.

Federation Space – Where IS the United Federation of Planets?

Using science fiction to science fiction to learn astronomy … and vice versa.

By using the real stars mentioned in all the series of StarTrek, we can not only learn where the Federation, Klingons, Romulans and other civilizations would be location in our galaxy, we can actually learn about the stars and Milky Way.  This book will teach about how to locate the stars written in the episodes that can be found in the night sky.  Coming this fall!


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