September 1, 2017

It’s Not Too Late to Explore the Wonder of the Great American Eclipse

by guest-blogger Emily Morgan

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The excitement and wonder of the Great American Eclipse can last long past August 21st. It's an event that many students will remember all their lives and provides marvelous learning opportunities that we can take advantage of in the days and weeks to come. I visited a local school to watch the eclipse with students and have been following up with some modeling activities and a read aloud. It’s been over a week since the eclipse, but the excitement of it all is still with us!

Here’s what we’ve been doing in the days after the eclipse:

Observations: First, we discussed our observations – the orange and black circles overlapping in our solar eclipse glasses, the sky getting darker, the air around us getting cooler, and so on. We talked about how the Sun looked was a crescent shape during the eclipse, which then led us into a discussion about the Moon’s different shapes, or phases.

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Modeling the Moon Phases: Next, we introduced the question, “What Moon phase must it be for a solar eclipse to occur?” In order to answer, we first explored the Moon phases with a modeling activity using white Styrofoam balls represent the Moon, a lamp to represent the Sun, and students’ heads representing Earth. Through this activity, they learned that the Moon’s phases are caused by the Moon’s orbit around Earth, that the Moon phases occur in a pattern, and that the phases have names – New Moon, Quarter Moon, Gibbous Moon, and Full Moon. A full description of this modeling activity and a YouTube video showing the activity can be found at this link. I like to show the beginning of the video to students first, pause it at about 1:47 and stop to do the activity. Then, we watch the rest of the video. 

Read-Aloud: After the activity, we read the book Next Time You See the Moon and refer to the Styrofoam ball modeling activity throughout the read-aloud. The book explains that the Moon’s phases are caused by the Moon’s orbit around the Sun – that half of the Moon is always lit by the sun, and we see different parts of the side reflecting light as the Moon travels around our planet.

Modeling the eclipse.
Modeling the Eclipse: After the read-aloud, students were challenged to use the same Sun-Moon-Earth model to represent a solar eclipse. Students were given time to figure out that the Moon must be positioned between the Sun and the Earth during a solar eclipse and that in order for the Moon to be in that position, it must be a New Moon. We also observed the circular shadow of the Moon on Earth (our faces) during a solar eclipse and discussed the fact that the solar eclipse was not visible to everyone on Earth, just those of us in the shadow. Finally, we watched satellite footage of the Moon’s shadow moving across the United States on August 21st and related that footage to our model.

More Questions: As always with science, the more you learn, the more questions you have, so we generated and explored more questions like:
• Why don’t we have a solar eclipse at every New Moon?
• How often does a solar eclipse happen?
• How does the size of the Moon compare to the size of the Sun?
• How far away are the Sun and the Moon from Earth? 
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I hope you will consider trying this modeling activity with your students, and I hope that the wonder of the Great American Eclipse stays with you all for a very long time.

If you'd like a complete 5-E lesson (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) about the phases of the Moon, see Chapter 17: The Changing Moon in Picture-Perfect Science Lessons from NSTA Press.

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