The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter #6 - August 1, 2021

Astronomy Education, Sky Connections, Teachniques, Latest Research, NGSS

Cover — Living on Proxima Centauri?

See Connections. Photo credit Joanne Ramasawmy.

In This Issue:

  • Cover Photo - Living on Proxima Centauri? (An Art/Science Project)

  • Connections to the Sky - Living on Proxima Centauri? How About on a Pale RED Dot? (An Art/Science Project)

  • Astronomical Teachniques - Rotating Potatoes = Asteroids!; Cultural Astronomy in Your Hometown; Advice for the External Teacher; Virtual Schooling Advice with Primary Students—Get Up and Dance!

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners - (2): An Antikythera Replica for the Classroom; Science Outreach with Seniors

  • A Look at the Next Generation Science Standards, in Astronomy, Part 3 - Some Physics

  • The Galactic Times Newsletter Highlights

  • Early Bird Subscription Information and Discounts!


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Connections to the Sky

  • Living on Proximate Centauri?—How About on a Pale RED Dot? (An Art/Science Project)

    British artist Joanne Ramasawmy showed a fascinating art/science photographic project…what would the world look like under a star not like our Sun?

    While most life on other worlds is generally seeking Earth-like planets, the underlying assumption is that those worlds are also around solar type G stars. But G stars are only 7.5% of all stars; cooler red M stars are at least 76% of all stars in the Milky Way, certainly in our solar neighborhood, and much of their light is found in the infrared. So what would that world look like?

    Ramasawmy is building a photographic exhibition doing just that. Originally she and her collaborators used Kodak Aerochrome film, used for aerial photography, but it was discontinued in 2011. Now she uses both color and black-and-white film, and near-infrared (NIR) filters.

    Why do this?  And why you might you do this with your students, or your photography club?

    First, exploration and imagination and creativity in science is shown: this is speculative and “what if” research.  It isn’t something you can get an answer out of Google or a book; it can spark curiosity. 

    Second, it can increase climate consciousness and hope.  She writes “We must work to preserve our planet’s habitability.” We can’t really live in an infrared world.  

    Science actually IS accessible and inclusive; we’re all in this together. Science is fun, beautiful, full of questions and not necessarily answers, accessible to all and it can be multi-sensory.

    While it may be less likely, there are other possibilities. What about life around giant stars, with much shorter cosmic lifetimes? She is also now trying Lomochrome film, to simulate light under giant star light and spectra.


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

Astronomical Teachniques

  • Rotating Potatoes = Asteroids!

    Asteroids are often described as appearing like, well, potatoes. Most of them can not be actually visibly seen, unless a probe has visited them, so we get to ‘see’ them by getting their shapes by occultations (we get a cross section as they pass over a star, watched by many observers at different places) or catching their light curves as they rotate. Here’s how you can mimic the process, according to Helen Usher, a Ph.D. student at the UK’s Open University—-take the light curve of a rotating potato!

Usher’s Rotato involves a powered turntable on which a variety of objects can be placed, itself placed in a box shielding it from ambient light, a webcam (or any other photosensor) connected to a laptop or computer with software that reads out the light intensity over time and graphs it, and an aim-able beam of light that shines on the object. The beam is aimed at the object, the turntable is started, and the webcam/sensor records the intensity of the reflected light, which is displayed at a light curve on the monitor.

At the least, a rotation period can be determined by the repeating pattern of the curve. One can make models of known asteroids from soap or other materials and see how they match known light curves, or how they match up to your potato. Or make balls with a dark and a light side and see how Saturn’s moon Icarus’ magnitude changes over one orbital revolution (it is synced to its rotation. Or a comet nucleus’s shape changes with viewpoint.

I tried it with a Vernier light sensor, constrained with a long cardboard tube over its photocell, with its software on my laptop. I had no motorized or battery operated turntable but I had an old record player I could plug in and run electrically and a “Lazy Susan” from the dining table I could experiment with by hand. Neat!

(two illustrations courtesy Helen Usher’s PowerPoint)

  • Cultural Astronomy in Your Hometown.

Take a photo during a winter solstice or equinox date and see if any streets are aligned with the sun.  Do this on other dates.  Research theoretical orientation and gather physical evidence.  Hypothesize why.

Editor’s note: I found that my home is actually aligned to the winter solstice! For about 2-3 weeks, the low sun streams through a utility room window straight into the kitchen dining area, a long reach. A kind of Bama-henge! It is the only time of year that the Sun comes directly through windows casting a beam as trees block all other sunrises, and sunsets that do come straight in merely hit the next wall of this house, don’t go through doors or entrance ways. It does turn out that the streets here are aligned not to a North-South grid but to a geological ridge that is twisted somewhat northwest-southeast, hence one set of house sides facing more southwest, to the solstice point!

To see more classical “henges”, and how some are turning these into skyscapes that include Sun, Moon and planets day and night, computer generated, see www.stonehengeskyscape.co.uk and this Irish one, www.gov.ie/newgrange .

  • Advice for the External Teacher

Many TCA readers are part of a university or museum. There were a number of discussions at the RAS meeting of how to be more effective coming INTO a school system, in particular to schools with underserved populations, something not unique to just the UK. Here are several notes and quotes from those talks….

  1. Quoting Martin Archer, Imperial College, London:  Going Beyond the One-Off:

“Consider the “learning ecology” of the young person, the context in which learning takes place since outreach/engagement does not occur in isolation.  Scientists (and educators) delivering one-off activities are far out in the ecology.”

One-offs have potentials to teach factoids, give career awareness, support interests, but do not support STEM aspirations.  Short series (repeat-interventions) add in confidence buildings and improved (hopefully) perceptions of scientists.  It is the deeper programs—repeat interventions and the influencing the influencers, e.g. the teachers and families and administrators—that improve students’ confidence and skills, their attainment, STEM aspirations and potential degree destinations for future students of astronomy.

A chart Archer created showed that those closest to the child that must be influenced are the school, peers, people at the neighborhood playground, daycare facility, religious organizations, health service,s and, of course, family.  Next out that influence the children are government agencies, social and health services, mass media, the parents’ economics situation, school board, and extended family and neighbors.  Beyond that are ideologies and attitudes of the culture. 

He says, “You have to decide where you can best work, and how often you can work there.  Scientists doing one-offs are FAR out in the ecology.  To increase influence you have to repeat interventions and influence the influencers, notably the family and school. Tailor the purpose to the context of students’ educational journey, and consider what YOU are best placed to deliver compared to the rest of the STEM comunication/engagement sector (researchers, freelancers, museums, etc.).”

  1. Another educator (sorry, name got lost….) had these points in a slide about dealing with underserved populations that don’t often see science as a career option. Inserts are mine—LK

Shift from promotion of exceptionalism to promotion of relatable. [They have to see that science is really an option for them.]

Include fallibility alongside successes. [The educator liked to point out that he failed many of his job interviews!]

For students in deeper poverty situations, don’t raise aspirations, but show accessibility to additional pathways. Do not exclude non-STEM careers. [You don’t have to be a scientist to work in science. You can be a cook at a remote observatory, a secretary, a technician, many other jobs.]

  • Virtual Schooling Advice with Primary Students—Get Up and Dance!

A UK research study showed that 1 in 3 primary school teachers said they set less science home-learning and it was more likely to be nature-based.  Less than 6 in 10 parents said they received science work, but nearly all had English and Maths. Teachers stated the parents’ ability to help, and resources, were the main reasons for not setting science work for virtual classrooms, even more so in areas that were in areas of higher “economic deprivation.”

Combining science with the arts made science appear less elitist, more fun.  A particular study, of using appropriately choreographed dance created to show science concepts (planetary motions, rotations and revolutions, waves of light, etc.) with primary-aged students, showed that 70% of the children said it improved their understanding of difficult ideas.  Dance actually encouraged questions. 

The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners

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

  1. “A Simplified Replica of the Antikythera Mechanism as a Tool to Astronomy Teaching.” Guerra, W. and Neves, M.C.D. International Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Journal, 3(1): 8-13. March 15, 2021.

    The Antikythera Mechanism were found in 1901 on a Roman shipwreck alongside numerous archaeological artifacts that are currently found in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. It is a remarkably complex astronomical predictive computing device for its time, estimated to be from about 205 BC, giving rise and set times, and positions in the sky of the Sun, Moon, stars and five known visible planets, accounting for the last’s retrograde motions, and Moon’s phases, and solar eclipse Saros cycles as well.

Using a laser-cutting device, a simplified version for educational use of the Mechanism was created; a solar gear, a lunar disk, and one for Mercury. This article contains plans to reproduce these for reproduction by others and what can be shown. Complete plans are found at their website.

(Graphics from the article quoted above.)

  1. “Science with Seniors: A Model Program for Senior Citizen—Centered STEM Outreach,” S. Padgaonkar and E.A. Schafer. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 25, 2, p. 111. (2021).

    Several conference sessions and journal studies have appeared recently on bringing outreach not to youngsters, ages 2 to 18 but to adults, especially to those in their retirement years, and to their caretakers. There are some apparent advantages to doing this that have not be exploited before. These people vote. They are those that do, or have, supported museums and education before. They have had often prior interests in science, especially during the Space Race era. And they are wildly susceptible to the ravages of misinformation. This (US) Georgia study brought up some conclusions that could be useful for those who do public outreach and those who wish to combat science misinformation.

    To the authors, only two programs to seniors were known, one called Science and Me helping budding science communicators gain skills, and one being a lecture series designed to simply enrich seniors’ lives. These researchers then asked:

    • What are effective ways to engage senior citizens with science outreach?

    • How can senior citizens benefit from science outreach?

    • How does science outreach affect the attitudes toward science?

    The answer to the first question was informal talks with a large number of visual aids to reinforce complex concepts. In fact, many of the seniors contributed quite technical discussions on their own, analogies to their past work in technologies they had worked in. It also marked a shift from a pedagogical to a conversational program. There were unclear answers for the other two questions.

    Other lessons learned included: Seek community partners with goals that align with program goals, such as established life-long learning institutes (LLIs). Spend the necessary amount of time on training presenters prior to sessions to maximize the potential impact of the content. Make time to chat informally with residents before and after presentations to humanize scientists and build relationships. Foster a dialogue between the presenter and participants by creating a comfortable space for questions and discussion. Seek suggestions for program improvement from both presenters and participants.

A Look at the Next Generation of Science Standards, of Astronomy, Part 3

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 and the three Laws.

  • 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.

Wow. Is there a lot missing……

In this newsletter, can we fill any gaps with material from other science domains? There are standards for geology, meteorology and earth sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, and more. The answer is….not really. A search for standards on gravity netted nothing we already didn’t have, beyond the physics of gravity being the force at a distance between two masses, and locally, a downward force of acceleration. Okay, you can do labs on that, and NGSS recommends you use “mathematics or computational representations to predict the motion of orbiting objects in the solar system” or the universe, which requires gravity. Geology has a lot of Earth history over billions of years but it really doesn’t go much into how the other planets follow along. Nuclear fusion in the Sun, we already have that, and how the other elements build up.

Only in the physics of electromagnetic radiation do we get a little extra material. Below is my collating of the standards, with comments:

  • 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]

Really, helpful, but…not enough. We’ll try to fill this out once and for all next time…..


In The Galactic Times Newsletter:

  • Cover Story — Mars: The Present (What We Have Learned to Date from Active Missions)

  • This Just In — Bezos’ Plans; Watery Ganymede; Moon Dust; New Moon Probes

  • Sky Planning Calendar — Including: How to Watch the Perseids; Saturn at its Best

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life — The Lunar Dispatch

Subscribe to it here! It’s Free!


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.

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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Thanks for visiting our Universe! Stay safe in yours!

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Dr. Larry Krumenaker

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