The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter #8 - September 1, 2021

School Year Starting Observations--Motions, Kepler's Third Law, Moon, RAP Sheet--Big data, Phases; NGSS--What's Missing in Content

Planetary Ball Drop

(Courtesy APOD/YouTube/J. O’Donoghue)

In This Issue:

  • Connections to the Sky - A Tool For Comparing Mars and Earth

  • Astronomical Teachniques - Start the School Year with Some Observations;
    Demonstrating Gravity on Other Worlds;
    Using Jupiter to Demonstrate an Example of Kepler’s Third Law

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners - 
    “Educational Design Framework for a Web‑Based Interface to Visualise Authentic Cosmological “Big Data” in High School”;
    “Understanding of Teachers on Phases of the Moon and the Lunar Eclipse”

  • A Look at the Next Generation Science Standards, in Astronomy, Part 5 - The Missing Matters

  • The Galactic Times Newsletter Highlights

  • The Last Early Bird Subscription Information and Discounts!


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Connections to the Sky


Astronomical Teachniques

  • Start the School Year with Some Observations

School is beginning for many by now, if it hasn’t already for all. Still warm (an understatement?) but a few things might be worth being tried as cosmic ice-breakers to sky observation. Taken from Issue #8 of The Galactic Times are these three items:

Midmonth Moon Watching: While September 13th may be the official First Quarter Moon, the few days before to the few after are about the best time to watch the moving shadow play of the edges of lunar craters and central peaks. Even over a few hours, say, right after dinner and then just before a late nightcap viewing session before moonset near midnight, you can see some changes as the Moon has moved further in its orbit, increasing its phase, and causing lengthening and shortening shadows along the day-night edge, called the terminator (no relation to Ahh-nold)). The changes are a different kind of dramatic day-to-day, but new observers may tend to lose track of the initial craters they were watching. Obviously this is an opportunity for dragging out telescopes in storage; some binoculars well steadied might work, or evening star parties might be a good way to get classes to come together while it is still warm enough….or maybe before Friday night football….

Giant Planet Fun: Jupiter (and to some degree, Saturn), in addition to their obvious beautiful telescopic features, have interesting naked eye things to teach—

  1. An interesting play is to one night try to see where brilliant Jupiter is in reference to some ground feature (tree, building, spire) one night, and then try to see how soon after sunset you can find it the next clear night. A challenge during hazy summer evenings, yes, but if clear enough, give it a whirl. Technically, Jupiter can be detected in broad daylight when at greatest brilliancy, as it is now, though it is very difficult and requires sharp eyes, a reference point, and often blocking off of bright day skylight. Speaking of which, if you use NASA’s Origami StarShield (TCA #7) you can try to find one or more of Jupiter’s bright moons!

  2. Both giant worlds are slowly moving westward among the stars, retrograding, the great dilemma of the ancient astronomers to explain, Jupiter a tad faster, being closer to us. These motions are not THEIR motions; they are due to our Earth lapping them in our orbit, an illusion. If you catch any stars nearby them (naked eye or binoculars best but even with small telescopes, but don’t confuse with their moons!!), watch the distances over a week or two and see the changes. This is no different than watching cars on the highway as you pass them apparently going “backwards” compared to you, you being faster than they are. You know the cars are moving forward, they just don’t look that way if you are ‘lapping’ them.

  • Demonstrating Gravity on the Other Planets

A neat Astronomy Picture of the Day last week is useful for showing the different amounts of gravity on the Sun, Moon, and planets of the Solar System. It shows how fast a ball would drop over a one-kilometer distance. While a student might correlate that a bigger planet would have more gravity and cause the ball to drop faster, that isn’t always the case. Density is a factor as well; big Uranus has a gravity little different from tinier Earth.

A screenshot is at the top of this newsletter. Find the video here.

  • Using Jupiter’s Moons to Demonstrate an Example of Kepler’s Third Law

With Jupiter easily visible in the September evening skies, this is a good start to the school year astronomy exercise, for homework for those with binoculars or cheap small telescopes, or night labs at schools or colleges. If you can’t yet have in-person night groups, someone can take observations for the class (a different person every night?) or photograph the planet with a camera or a remote telescope, or use an online resource. In any case, it is easy, a good graphing exercise, too, and Kepler’s Laws are a part of the Next Generation Science Standards, as discussed below and in previous TCA Newsletter issues.

With nights beginning early, students do not have to stay out too late to make their observations. It is a bit better to use a telescope; in binoculars, Jupiter’s inner moons —Io and Europa—are often lost in Jupiter’s glow and Jupiter’s disk itself is very small. As we shall see below this is a critical part of the exercise. On the other hand, binoculars are more likely to be found in students’ homes than telescopes, and the outer moons Ganymede and Callisto are better at determining the Third Law than the inner ones.

Kepler's Third Law--Orbital Period = a constant k times Average Distance-cubed

The moons appear to be shuttling back and forth from one side of Jupiter to the other. When observations are placed in order of time of observation, connecting each moon’s position during the shuttling would create wavy lines down the sheet. Try it with the above partial example.

One of the two key datum needed is the orbital period P for each moon, how long it takes in days to go from one side to the other and back to the same place as it started. The other key, A, the moon’s average (or here, maximum) distance from Jupiter, can be measured by using Jupiter’s diameter as our ruler, our ‘Astronomical Unit’ of distance. Measure how many Jupiter diameters there are between the center of Jupiter and the spark of light of the moon. Do this for at least two weeks but better a full month or longer. You need to find the farthest it gets, and if there are several such maxima, average them. The reason you want a long time observing is that the farthest moon takes about two weeks for one orbit and you want to have at least 3 repeating plots for that moon, to get a good measure of A and P. Plus you won’t have every night clear! A good example of real-world science!

When you have your observations, plot them on a graph where the date is on the X-axis and the distance is on the Y axis. (Leave blank spaces for dates you did not get an observation!) You are seeking two values: how long it takes the moon to return to its maximum distance on one side of the planet (P) and the maximum distance itself in Jupiter radii (A).

Once you have determined the moons’ P and A values, calculate P-squared and A-cubed and plot each moon’s values in another X-Y plot, where the P-squared is on the Y-axis (the vertical axis). The slope of the line = k. Generally, k = ~ 0.12 in this system because of our units; in the real Kepler’s Law of real AU’s and years it would be k = 1.

The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners

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

  1. Educational Design Framework for a Web‑Based Interface to Visualise Authentic Cosmological “Big Data” in High School. S. Salimpour, M. T. Fitzgerald, R. Tytler, and U. Eriksson. Journal of Science Education and Technology, (Online) April 21 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-021-09915-2 

This is an extraordinary work and guide for anyone wanting to figure out how to bring in real astronomy research into a classroom. It is both an overview to the kinds of potential educational ‘real research’ out there students can do in an astronomy course, a guide to how to set up a project, and a working example of two specific projects. In this article review, all three topics will be examined.

Real research in the classroom is more than the pedagogical ideas of “authentic inquiry, science as practice, inquiry-learning, or problem-based learning,” as valuable as these pedagogies are. But today’s students are also very technological, and highly ‘screen oriented’ and taking advantage of that visual and technological orientation can be, indeed, might even be, valuable skills to learn and truly use. The ability to recognize patterns, to be visually literate, to be data literate, may be the next big value in science education.

Quoting the authors: “The purpose of this paper is to propose a framework that elucidates the key theoretical, pedagogical, and technical features inevitably involved in designing an interface that structures student access to cosmological Big Data sets in schools. We propose a set of solutions, including a data interface, that are currently under development. In exploring this innovation, we review students’ conceptions of Cosmology, teacher capabilities, relevant current education schema and curricula, and educational design principles, before reviewing a range of existing tools and their affordances.”

The data can come from the massive amounts obtained from professional research projects—planetary missions, orbiting observatories, and the like. Students have the means to get their own from robotic and remote observatories. Some of the Citizen Science projects use these, such as by Zooniverse. For classroom education use, again the authors say “materials promoting the notion of inquiry-based learning in astronomy such as projects like Contemporary Laboratory Exercises in Astronomy (CLEA) (Marschall et al., 1993), Virtual Educational Observatory (VIREO) (Marschall & Snyder, 2004), and UNL Astronomy Education Labs (Lee, 2008, 2019) give students experiences into aspects of Cosmology using simulations and recontextualised data. Great River Learning provides Big Ideas in Cosmology which is an online textbook that presents concepts in Cosmology via interactive exercises, animations, and videos. These animations use real data to convey the concepts in Cosmology.”

The authors themselves have created their own Cosmology interface, to draw on the vast Virtual Observatory database, which they call CosmoView. [Regrettably, there is neither any apparent reference to the software, nor a link to this, and a Google search came up empty. It is apparently experimental, web-based, and entirely their own creation and unavailable as yet to the public.] They mentioned current tools Current tools like TOPCAT, ALADIN, Gephi, Strasbourg Astronomical Data Center (CDS), the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) and the World (mispelled!) Wide Telescope, though these may not be intuitive or simple. You’ll have to check these out for yourself first. One hopes the CosmoView will be released quickly.

Two helpful things to pull from this article. First, this pentagon of questions, useful for any kind of open-ended science exploration.

Second, below is an excerpt of a two page table and one page abbreviations listing of potential projects for research and data sources. Use these for inspiration. And for a very valuable list of data resources!

  1. Understanding of Teachers on Phases of the Moon and the Lunar Eclipse, M. G. Semercioğlu and H. Kalkan,” European Journal of Education Studies, 8, 2, 102-131. (2021). DOI: 10.46827/ejes.v8i2.3555

You would think we’d have this concept down pat by this time but no…..

This article on some research on Turkish teachers’ understanding of phases of the Moon and on the formation of lunar eclipses has some relevance to teachers everywhere. There are teachers who still ‘don’t get it’ and also students who don’t either. There were two misconceptions that are common there, and here, that always need to be addressed:

  1. While all teachers generally get that this is a three-object positional problem—Earth, Sun, Moon—the distance scale is vastly underestimated. Teachers uniformly have everything way too close. This affected their understanding that the phases viewed everywhere on Earth are the same at the same time.

  2. Also, teachers (and many students) do not understand that the Earth-Sun and Earth-Moon orbits are tilted 5 degrees to each other and that is why there are not eclipses all the time.

Readers of the RAP Sheet need to be aware of these in their students and work on making scale-appropriate models to show the phases properly and the eclipse situations.

One other note. Whoever runs this Journal needs to seriously upgrade their editing. This article came out looking like both the writers and the peer reviewers were sorely lacking both in English skills and astronomy knowledge. The Earth does NOT rotate around the Sun, it revolves. The Moon is not observed from different coordinates, it is observed from different locations. This piece should be used as an example in graduate school of what a peer review piece should NOT look like.

A Look at the Next Generation of Science Standards, of Astronomy, Part 5—The Missing Matters

In prior issues we put together the standards of both content standards in astronomy and related physics, and the scientific skills that the NGSS recommends be taught. For the most part, the former are basic Earth-Moon daily and seasonal motions, and eclipses (though those are not always available for every semester), changes in the sky are due muchly to Earth’s motions, stars and stellar evolution are studied through starlight, the Solar System is made up of the Sun, moons, planets and asteroids but left out are lots of other details and objects, it was created from a dust and gas disk and we know this by studying the other objects in the Solar System, orbits are the functions of Newton’s gravity and Kepler’s Laws, everything was made during the Big Bang except what comes from supernovae, light is both a wave and photonic, and by studying how atoms emit and absorb light we learn about the stars and far away objects in space—which are not delineated in the content standards.

Scientific tools or methods described to be taught, by inference often, are asking questions to guide research (realism in the questions, variables, evidence), observing and measuring those observations (quantitative and qualitative), describing and communicating (patterns and graphics, modeling), theorizing and predicting.

What’s not there?

In terms of content, quite a bit. In terms of tools, some. Let’s start with the latter.

In my opinion, what’s missing among the tools and methods is a uniformity across the content, doing the “method” from start to finish. Getting students to learn to ask the questions. Finding out what to observe and do so and judge what is appropriate and what was not. How to put together hypotheses, and to predict new results. What kinds of graphs are appropriate and what do they each mean? Causation and correlation.

Also what is missing big time is both uncertainty and statistics, which really go hand in hand. In curricula I’ve taught measurement uncertainty gets a lot of instructional time. Statistics and what it means gets very short shrift. Some basic stats and what it *means* should get more student face-time. Are those data points not on the straight line really just off because of measurement error or do they hide something important, or should there be a curve?

On content, though, there is a LOT missing. Do a study of the newspapers, news weekly magazines, or some news websites for the past year as an exercise in class and see what’s been in the headlines or articles. Do they follow the NGSS topics? Not so much. The exploration of the planets, notably Mars and even Jupiter, aren’t in the standards, unless you place them in the big box of exploring the other worlds is how we learn about solar system history.

A BIG lack is everything outside of Solar System. There is little about the stars kids might see at night, certainly not the constellations. Only if one unpacks the ‘stellar evolution’ idea and explore nebulae->stars->endpoints of stars will you get that info into your classroom, but it is not explicit in the standards. But everything beyond the local scene, such as the Milky Way and what it is consisted, and the galaxies beyond are not all in the standards, yet are among the greatest topics being researched by astronomers, and are major Science section news leads.

One last big item amiss. How does astronomy fit into the rest of our lives? Granted the Western world isn’t highly dependent on following the stars for crop planting and ocean navigation anymore, but there is a lot of interplay between astronomy and everyday life. The GPS connection between your phone and Kepler’s Laws. The climate change connection of Carbon Dioxide on Earth, Mars and Venus and how we study them. Astrobiology and cosmochemistry.

The ideal astronomy course, or even the ideal use of astronomy in any grade of elementary or middle school, should be three-fold. It should enlighten the child to what is beyond the atmosphere of Earth. It should teach the child how we know what we know about what is in the Universe, and how we learn about the Universe including on Earth and that common sense and superstition are not the pathway to knowledge. And that the objects in the sky, at night and in the day, are separate from our lives but intimately a part of us. The NGSS are incomplete in these regards, and like all state and national standards, need to be taken in combination, not as the sole backbone of astronomy curricula.


In Issue 8 of The Galactic Times Newsletter:

  • This Just In — Snow on Mars

  • Sky Planning Calendar — Moon-Gazing, Observving—Plan-et with interesting things to observe, Border Crossings

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life — (Cover Story) Halting Steps for an Outdoor Planetarium in Ireland

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Back issues of the original The Classroom Astronomer magazine, with articles, Teachniques, Activities (all still perfectly good today!) are all still available for purchase in PDF format, at the Classroom Astronomer homepage. An Article Index and Tables of Contents to all issues are available on the Web.

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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 and print book coming (summer).  Detail description and advance orders coming soon.


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