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A Celestial Experience that Eclipses the Classroom

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May 24, 2017

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the entire continental United States. The last time the contiguous U.S. saw a total eclipse was in 1979, and it will not happen again until 2024. While the path of totality will cut across the middle of the country, the entire United States will experience some portion of a solar eclipse. And for all of your students, it will likely be the first time they have seen a solar eclipse – it might be your first time as well!

I know firsthand the unique opportunity that this kind of an event provides educators, and the impact it can have on your students. I was a brand new high school teacher in 1996 when I experienced a lunar eclipse opportunity. Teaching physics and astronomy in New York City, I was looking for ANY chance to get my students to observe something astronomical through the city lights. I found an activity where students could use simple tools and a geometric calculation to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon (thank you, Aristarchus). I partnered with the Geometry teacher and we had the entire 10th grade class, over 100 students, on the school baseball field that night to experience a lunar eclipse and a math and science lesson. I will never forget hearing all the yells from the students as they discovered that geometry “works” on their own under a full moon. Having this experience early in my teaching career gave me the confidence to continue experimenting with taking my students out of the classroom, such as the day I kicked off a thermodynamics unit by showing them a car engine (most of them took the subway and didn’t have cars). Another time, we read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, and then calculated and built a pendulum with the same timing (hint, have a multi-story staircase available).

Watch the Webinar and access the Teacher Toolkit

It is because these kinds of experiences are so transformational that I knew I wanted to help teachers prepare for the 2017 Solar Eclipse, especially since the timing of this event on August 21 makes planning ahead essential. We are here to help you "know before you go" home for the summer, with the tools—and hashtag—you need to plan for a safe solar eclipse experience for you, your students, and your school. Where to start?

  • Watch our webinar to hear about the eclipse experience and get some ideas (NOTE- you must download Adobe Connect to watch!)
  • Use our Teacher Toolkit to explore activities and expert recommendations and resources
  • Have questions? Ask anytime on Twitter using #TeachEclipse2017

Science, Math, Arts, Music – Learning Comes Together

While an eclipse is a great anchoring phenomenon for science teachers (more about qualities of a good anchor phenomenon here), this experience offers any educator something that they can connect with. Here are a few:

  • The history of eclipses and how people viewed them throughout time
  • There are some great arts opportunities, including in music 
  • There are geography opportunities with the wealth of eclipse maps available
  • And don’t forget math!

An Experience to Remember

Finally, we keep hearing one thing loud and clear from the experts – enjoy the experience! Feel the coolness as the Moon covers the Sun, listen to the quieting of the animals and people around you, and think about the uniqueness of this solar eclipse. We will leave you with a few final thoughts:

  • You don't have to be in the path of totality to have a great eclipse experience.
  • There is not one right thing to do with an eclipse, it can be experiential or educational—or both!
  • You don’t have to take pictures of the actual eclipse (there are a lot of professionals doing this—and better).
  • Ask your students to reflect on how old they will be in 2024, and consider writing a letter to their future self for the next solar eclipse.

And regardless of how it turns out, just reflect on the fact that, for a short while, you will be standing in the shadow of another celestial object—our Moon—that is a quarter of a million miles away from you.


Rachel Connolly is the Director of STEM Education for WGBH and PBS  LearningMedia. After teaching high school physics in NYC, she moved into teacher professional development and educational programming at the  American Museum of Natural History. Her work with the Hayden Planetarium sparked a love of data visualization that led to her graduate work at Teachers College Columbia University. Her work focuses on designing  media-integrated educational experiences that leverage emerging formats of scientific data for innovative instruction. You can see her on PBS LearningMedia talking about the Solar System, or follow her at @rachelbconnolly

Rachel Connolly

Rachel Connolly Director of STEM Education Twitter: @rachelbconnolly

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