The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter #7 - August 16, 2021

StarShades, Rotatoes, University Planetaria and Observing Diaries, NGSS Skills

Cover — Asteroidal Potatoes

(courtesy Helen Usher, see Astronomical Teachniques)

In This Issue:

  • Connections to the Sky - NASA StarShade Origami for Home Use

  • Astronomical Teachniques - Rotato Redux!

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners - (2): How College Planetariums are Used; Observing Diaries for Astro 101 Classes

  • A Look at the Next Generation Science Standards, in Astronomy, Part 4 - The Paradigms of Skills

  • The Galactic Times Newsletter Highlights

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Connections to the Sky

  • Making—and Using—an Origami Star Shade

    NASA has plans to send a huge, baseball-field-sized shield into space so it can block stars’ light and see their planets with a space telescope. But star shields that big can’t just be put on the tip of a rocket. So they have to be folded up origami-style. On the website listed below, you can download a plan to make the origami model of the starshield for yourself.
    But there is a practical use for it and your students and that would be to use it to block the light of the Moon and see a nearby star about to be occulted. Or, block the Moon during daylight when a bright planet —Jupiter or Venus—might be within a degree of the Moon. How about block the setting Sun and getting an early glimpse of Mercury or Venus in twilit skies? (DON’T USE THIS TO TRY TO PHOTOGRAPH OR VIEW THE SUN!!!!) As mentioned in The Galactic Times #7, how about blocking Jupiter’s disk and trying to see one of its moons when they are at their farthest distance from the giant planet? Callisto can easily get far enough for the human eye to resolve it from Jupiter—if Jupiter wasn’t so bright—and that moon is naked eye bright enough! Give them a try!

[Is it time for some cool sugar-free lemonade? Check with the Hermograph Sundial T-shirt!]

Astronomical Teachniques

  • Rotating Potatoes = Asteroids! Redux

    Helen Usher sent a followup to the material posted in the last newsletter….

    “The software they use in the Rotato device can be found at ‘LightCurve’ is a simple webcam recording tool for Windows. It can measure the light output of an adjustable target circle inside a webcam image and can be used to record the light received from simulated astronomical targets. The turntable was CDIYTOOL’s Electric Rotating Turntable for Photography, Professional 360 Degree Motorized Rotating Stand Display Table for Live Video Automatic Revolving Platform Product Display Table (Black), about 18£. On the American, it was 19-25 dollars. It has three speeds, and two directions.”

    Some things to try:

“Look for items of different shapes, colours and reflectivity. Building bricks are a good place to start – see how different surface areas affect the brightness. Small polystyrene objects are great too - colour them or decorate them to see what effect that has on the curve. You can also experiment with other classroom objects. A glue bottle is great, we have found, for showing smooth surfaces, with the labels giving different reflectivity.

Rubber ducks of different shapes and colours are fun (and a good analogy for some comets like 67P), but also allow experimentation of how orientation changes the light curve. Try a duck sat normally, then knock it over and see how the curve changes. For asteroids, get a few different mis-shapen potatoes/sweet potatoes (even better if partially dirty and with blemishes) [see this issue’s Cover Photo]. Then try these different ways up (on its end, or on its side, or at an angle).

​Change the speed of rotation and see how the graph changes. Work out the rotation speed by spotting the repeat pattern in the graph. Try varying the distance /angle of the torch. Try varying the size of the circle used to define the measurement area.

Using a spherical light source and a solid ball on a post, it is possible to recreate exoplanets, with the light in the centre of the turntable–ball on a stick placed at the edge of the turntable.” Thanks, Helen!

The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners

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

  1. “Survey of the Academic Use of Planetariums for Undergraduate Education,” D. J. Everding and J. M. Keller. Physical Review Physics Education Research 16. , 020128. (2020)

    1. How often are planetariums used in the education of undergraduate astronomy learners? Is a typical astronomy class visiting a planetarium regularly or rarely?

    2. What are planetarium learners being taught? Is astronomy the only subject planetariums formally instruct? How is content being presented to learners?

    3. How are planetariums trying to actively engage their learners? Are planetariums effectively utilizing interactive classroom technologies and what types?

    4. Which astronomical topics are seen as well instructed in planetarium environments? Which are seen as poorly instructed? How can these findings motivate and guide efforts to enhance astronomy learning in fulldome environments?

These are the questions this survey, done in 2019, asked of university planetariums, particularly in regard to their usage towards undergraduate education. The answers were not always unexpected.

For example, the primary audiences of these planetariums were not undergraduates. They were K-12 audiences. At the undergraduate level, it wasn’t astronomy learners either, it was non-STEM students. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The majority of students in astronomy classes are Astro 101 non-science majors! Few astronomy majors or even required astro classes for science majors are going to be found. The fewest users of planetariums are grad students, and most of those are being trained to be instructors IN the planetarium.

Half as many Earth Sciences classes will use the facility as astronomy classes, and half as many again physical science classes. It would have been interesting to have picked out what topics within those classes a domed facility is useful for. Ditto for the life sciences, social sciences, and fine arts that college classes also find the dome useful.

In terms of astronomy, only these topics seem to have generated enough responses:

  1. Sky motions (rise or set, retrograde motion); celestial sphere 42 (77.8%)

  2. Lunar phases, Constellations, Seasons, Sky coordinates (local, celestial, ecliptic systems)

  3. Sizes, distances, and/or scales (time and space included), 2D or 3D orientations

  4. Compact objects (any), Gravity (Newtonian, relativistic), Stellar evolution, Galactic and universal structure(s) (cosmology and cosmic microwave background included), Orbital mechanics 3 (15.8%)

  5. Comparative planetology, Surfaces and interiors, Minor bodies 2 (20.0%)

  6. Historical interests, Navigation

What might be of interest to the educator was the pro and con list of pre-recorded versus live findings:

I suspect these are already known to the community. Use of assessment technology in the planetarium, as opposed to the classroom, is not that widespread.

  1. “Contribution of Self-directed, Naked-eye Observations to Students’ Conceptual Understanding and Attitudes Towards Astronomy,” D. R. Gozzard and M. G. Zadnik.  Physics Review Physics Education Research, 17, 010134. (2021).

    DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.17.010134

    These two Australian educators assessed observing diaries in college-level Gen Ed astronomy courses. Recognizing that students internalize facts but not knowledge, the use of observing diaries seems to help with applications of the latter.

    The diaries only accounted for 5% of a grade, which one may debate may be low for the amount of work to be done. In fact, the instructors themselves intend to raise the amount in the future, to around 20%, give or take. Meanwhile the diaries covered:

• Observation of the position and time of four sunrises or four sunsets. (Nominally one observation per week.)

• Four observations of a planet moving against background stars. (Nominally one observation per week.)

• Four observations of the Moon on consecutive days/nights. (Observations do not have to be on consecutive days if prevented by adverse weather, but students should attempt to make their Moon observations spread across as few days as possible.)

Additionally, students were instructed in the use of the program Stellarium, attended at least one open house/observatory night, observed any special events such as a meteor shower or eclipse. These diaries were used in both the stellar and planetary astronomy courses, which had several concepts in common, notably Earth and Moon motions. The success of the diaries as a tool were done by having some sections not use the diaries and then all sections tested using the Astronomy Diagnostic Test. Sections with the diaries showed improved ADT and science and astronomy positivity test scores though there was no correlation between diary scores and final course marks.

A Look at the Next Generation of Science Standards, of Astronomy, Part 4 Cross Cutting Stuff and…

Last issue we put together the total astronomy standards listed in the NGSS to make a course in astronomy out of them. This is what we got….

Sun, Earth and the Daily Experience

  • The Sun and stars are different only because of distance.

  • We see things happen in the sky because of the motions of the Moon and Earth.

  • Seasonal patterns of motions of the Sun, Moon and stars can be observed, described, predicted. Specifically to be learned this way, the seasonal patterns of sunrise and sunset, which should also be modeled.

  • Eclipses and seasons are mentioned but misconcepted(?) as a function of the solar system model!

  • Earth’s spin axis is fixed *and* has a tilt compared to our orbital plane (written incorrectly in the standards).

The Solar System and How It Works

  • The Solar System are planets, moons, and asteroids. Not mentioned but should be, are comets, and the Kuiper and Oort clouds and other objects.

  • The Solar System *appears* to have formed from a disk of gas and dust, because of gravity.

  • Kepler’s Laws refers to the planets, but what planets? None are mentioned.

  • Gravity and Newton are two mentioned causes of changes in orbits and it is a Cross-Cutting concept.

  • Studying moons, asteroids, comets are necessary because they have older and more pristine rocks than Earth does.

Stars and the Evolution of the Universe

  • We learn about stars and stellar evolution through studying stellar spectra and brightnesses. (Specifically, but not mentioned, changes in the latter.)

  • Starlight also teaches us about stellar composition and distances.

  • The Sun is a star and it evolves.

  • The creation of elements by the Big Bang and supernovae is to be taught, and the evidence for the former, as well.

Adding in the physics from the last issue…

Light (visible and otherwise) is the primary, though not only, source of information from the universe.

  • A wave model of light is useful for explaining brightness, color, and the frequency-dependent bending of light at a surface between media.

  • However, because light can travel through space, it cannot be a matter wave, like sound or water waves. Electromagnetic radiation (e.g., radio, microwaves, light) can be modeled as a wave of changing electric and magnetic fields or as particles called photons. The wave model is useful for explaining many features of electromagnetic radiation, and the particle model explains other features.

  • Atoms of each element emit and absorb characteristic frequencies of light. These characteristics allow identification of the presence of an element, even in microscopic quantities. [This naturally leads to the broad study of spectral analysis, a very fruitful area of lab exploration, whether stellar spectra or gas tubes.]

  • Objects can be seen if light is available to illuminate them or if they give off their own light. Some materials allow light to pass through them, others allow only some light through and others block all the light and create a dark shadow on any surface beyond them, where the light cannot reach. When light shines on an object, it is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through the object, depending on the object’s material and the frequency (color) of the light. [Of course, optics comes here but curved mirrors for collecting radio signals from satellites can come into play, too. Eclipses involve shadows, solar, lunar, Jovian moons, planetary transits….]

  • The path that light travels can be traced as straight lines, except at surfaces between different transparent materials (e.g., air and water, air and glass) where the light path bends.) Mirrors can be used to redirect a light beam. (Boundary: The idea that light travels from place to place is developed through experiences with light sources, mirrors, and shadows, but no attempt is made to discuss the speed of light.) [One might ask…why not? Timings of Jovian satellites can reveal the speed of light, though that is not a boundary issue. But gravitational lenses, certainly not a straight line phenomenon, fits in here.]

  • When light or longer wavelength electromagnetic radiation is absorbed in matter, it is generally converted into thermal energy (heat). Shorter wavelength electromagnetic radiation (ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays) can ionize atoms and cause damage to living cells. [ Which brings us to planetary atmospheres and climate, doesn’t it]

There are just two things left to put in here. One is methods. One is missing content. In this article, we’ll look at methods. As in scientific methods.

Now the hoary idea of “scientific method” is enough to instigate bar brawls among science teachers. Ask 10 teachers what the scientific method is and you’ll get at least 13 answers. The thing about the NGSS is that it was a paradigm shift. Standards up to then were primarily content standards. NGSS is primarily a skills standard, and one that was meant to show that skills cut across the content and the disciplines. In NGSS, there are concepts that Crosscut, and there are Science and Engineering Practices that use them. For example, at the High School level, Crosscutting Concepts include Patterns; Scale, Proportion and Quantity; Energy and Matter; and Stability and Change. The Practices in Science and Engineering that utilize them include Models that need to be developed and used; mathematical and computational thinking; Constructing Explanations and Solutions; Engaging in Argument from Evidence; and a practice in Evaluating and Communication Information. This is just the long way of saying Observe, Record, Analyze, Infer, Hypothesize, Predict, Communicate, Rinse and Repeat.

Combining the Crosscutting and Practices, what scientific method skills are recommended, without actually recommending them in the standards themselves?


—Making observations and then designing explanations;
—Producing quantitative approaches to collecting data and multiple trials of qualitative observation data (this is good and new, in my opinion), and then analyzing the data and making good graphical displays
—….and looking for patterns in order to sort, classify, analyze.

Middle school:

—Asking questions that **can be investigated** (realism, what a concept!) in a classroom, outdoors, or in a museum setting;
—Planning investigations and and carrying them out, with independent, dependent, and control variables;
—When done, argue from evidence.

High School:

—Develop and use models;
—Seek patterns;
—Seek across scales and proportions;
—Use your data and algebra and predict changes;
Communicate your ideas;
—Create theories with repeated confirmations of predictions and observations.

Do these show up in the above content standards?

The elementary and middle school NGSS content standards are repetitive in discussing observing, describing, predicting sun and seasonal motion patterns. Patterns of the Moon are mentioned, but not specified (Phases? Motions across the sky? Time of month? What?) Constellations? Not a hint.

The content standards are loaded with models, though. Big Bang theory, solar system from gas and dust, stellar evolution makes elements, gravity and Kepler’s laws control orbital dynamics. Some of the models are written erroneously, as noted before. But what to do WITH the models? Nothing stated. That’s the teacher’s worry.

Oh, and only in the light physics are there any other helpful hints—optics, waves, atomic identifications via spectra.

Any developing of models? Algebraic or quantitative techniques? Qualitative?? Nothing. All the other contents mentioned. Uh uh.

We’ll talk about missing content next time, then try to put these together.

In Issue 7 of The Galactic Times Newsletter:

  • Cover Story — Mars: The Future (The JAXA Sample Return Mission, ExoMars 2022, and Future Missions to Other Planets, too)

  • This Just In — Touring the Asteroid Bennu—the Awesome Video; A Rare (and Barely Naked Eye) Nova

  • Article — A Diversity of Exoplanets, Are We Not The Standard?

  • Sky Planning Calendar — Including: Observing Jupiter and its Moons at Opposition; Finding Uranus

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life — Delicious Space Dust; Meghan’s Jewels

Subscribe to it here! It’s Free!

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

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Questions, suggestions, comments? Email them to:
Dr. Larry Krumenaker
Twitter: @ToTeachTheStars Facebook: Hermograph Press