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How to teach astronomy?

  1. Aug 11, 2015 #1
    I'm an 18 year old scouts member; which makes me one of the "elders" of the boy scouts. My chief has asked me to prepare an astronomy session to teach to 11-16 year old boy scouts. I'll be joining them on their summer camp in 2 weeks time. So I'm supposed to wake them up in the middle of the night (perfect setting for teaching astronomy i guess) and give them this session. What I need help with is finding a subject which is both academic and entertaining at the same time. I also consider integrating said subject into a "story" (maybe involving Greek Mythology or so) and eventually giving them a game to play at the end of the session. I wondered if the boys would be able to survive the session and even play a game at the end considering it'll be past midnight, my chief assured me that they would be more than excited.

    To rephrase in the form of questions:
    What are some interesting topics in astronomy that can be easily understood and probably admired by the boys?
    Is there a way to make a story out of it and create a game?

    PS: Anything that can be easily viewed in the night sky is also probably possible since i downloaded the Sky Map app.
    Answering even one of the question would be lots of help so thanks in advance and sorry for the long post.
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 11, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 11, 2015 #2
    Bad timing. You will be missing the Perseid meteor showers this week.

    Starting with constellations that are easily spotted like Orion and the ursa minor is usual. The fact that the Harry Potter character Sirius Black is named after the brightest star in the night sky - the Dog star Sirius usually interests kids. Zodiacs and their significance, the pole star and its use in navigation, the moon and its phases and its role in tides etc. is usual. Other misc. facts like planets literally mean the wanderers. Stories about specific constellations like Sagittarius, Hydra and Orion might be included. The individual meanings of the planet names are interesting and when you can see them. A trick question that is fun to tease kids with-

    Which is the one planet in the Solar System that you can never see in the night sky, no matter how powerful a telescope you are using?
    The Earth.
  4. Aug 11, 2015 #3
    Thank you so much for your help. I will be looking into every single topic you mentioned. I am ashamed though to say that i have not seen all the harry potter movies (maybe this will be an excuse to do so :oldtongue:)
    PS: Nice trick question i will definitely include it.:oldbiggrin:
    Anything that might include games(maybe charades, or making astronomy related sketches...)?:angel:
    Thanks again!
  5. Aug 11, 2015 #4


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    The very basics of orienting oneself in the sky are a great way to start.

    Big Dipper.

    Follow Big Dipper to Pole star and Little Dipper. (Pole star is critical to any scout lost in the woods!)

    Follow past Pole star to Cassiopeia.

    Follow BD handle to Arcturus and Spica (two of the brightest and most conspicuous stars in sky)

    Follow BD to Regulus - the heart of Leo (can you see its red colour?)

    Find Andromeda Galaxy between Pegasus and Cassiopeia. (not a challenge for good eyes)

    Distinguish the twin stars Mizar and Alcor in Big Dipper (only for good eyes).

    Spot the constellation Perseus.
  6. Aug 11, 2015 #5
    I think Dave C426913 gave great suggestions. I add to Enigman's ideas other Harry Potter connections: many in the Black Family had astronomical names (Regulus, Bellatrix, Regulus, Pollux...).

    What is the actual date of the session? The full moon is 8/29, so the moon will be brighter and brighter as you approach that date, and will set later and later. It could wash out lots of the stars.

    On the other hand, the moon could be your focus. Use it to figure out where the sun is at the moment. Try to observe the moon's motion through the sky.
    From there build up that the planets all revolve about the sun in more-or-less of a plane. I find there is much confusion from students about the relationships among solar system, galaxy and universe...you could address that here. Emphasize that everything they see in the sky above them is in our galaxy (the Milky Way), unless you are lucky enough to be able to spot the Andromeda Galaxy.

    You might look up the distances to the brightest stars. Ask what the scouts were doing when this light left Sirius 8.6 years ago. What was going on when this light left Rigel or Betelgeuse?

    There are astounding misconceptions out there about the sky, and you might want to be on guard for them. (One extreme example: I have a friend who runs a planetarium in the New York City area and his wife works for the American Museum of Natural History. Both have encountered multiple kids who believe we live on the inside of the sphere of the earth...).
  7. Aug 11, 2015 #6
    What?, Where can this idea come from?, - if this were case then telescopes in the northern hemisphere should be seeing Australia and Antartica instead of galaxies!
    I guess one question you ask as part of a game is 'What is the closest star to Earth that can be seen with naked eye?' (It's the Sun of course)
  8. Aug 12, 2015 #7
    I've tried and can see no roots for the misconception. My friends who have witnessed it speculate it is related to the kids living in New York City and essentially never seeing stars. These friends also say the kids think the sun is in the middle of the Earth-sphere, so they'd get the question right about which star is closest.

    As a science educator, I am keenly aware that people build internal models for how the world works. (Douglas Hofstadter refers to the intuitive laws of physics.) Most are far more likely to ignore contradictory evidence than reconsider their models. A more prevalent example is the idea that vision involves light beams coming out of our eyes. I heard long ago that one in six American adults believe that. I recently encountered it for the first time from a middle school and high school student in an academic summer program from the gifted. I found a popular account of one study that identified the belief in the idea at a higher level in college students.
  9. Aug 12, 2015 #8
    Thank you all for your replies.
    As for Dave, is the Pole Star the tip of the Little Dipper?
    Thanks again. :redface:
  10. Aug 12, 2015 #9


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    Here's a few more tips:

    - take a very strong torch with you, one that can project a relatively tight beam of light. Usually, the summer air scatters light quite well, so you should be able to use the beam to 'point' to features on the sky. As you may find out, it's hard to point to a star with a finger, since only you have the same vantage point as yourself.

    - be sure to start with the Milky Way. Explain what it is, why we see a band. If you're adventurous and can think of a way to frame it, explain why it's tilted w/r to the horizon (the solar system being tilted as it orbits the galactic centre), and what's the direction we're travelling through space (towards Lyra, roughly).

    - if you wake them early in the morning (around 26 Aug, right?), about an hour or two before sunrise, you may look towards the East and find two bright objects - Venus and Mars, just over the horizon. You may start by asking to find the brightest 'star' (i.e. Venus) and explain how it's actually a planet. Perhaps segue to how planets differ from stars in that they tend not to flicker (they're discs, not point-sources), or how Venus can only be seen just before sunrise, or just after sunset.

    - ask the kids if they can discern between various colours of stars (and planets). Make a short remark about how hotter stars are whiter and colder ones redder. Mention that the (visible) red ones are mostly red giants (point to Betelgeuse and explain how big it is, or how pulsates).

    - if you can, borrow a pair of 50x10 binoculars. Even with just one pair, the kids may take turns looking at selected objects (e.g. the Moon, Venus, Pleiades).

    - in general, I'd advise doing a short speech, then letting the kids do some observations by themselves, then change the subject and do the same routine again. You want them to take it all in, and give them something to do rather than just listen.

    - if you're a good storyteller, you might include tales about the mythological origins of (some) constellations (told around a campfire maybe?). Quite a lot of them are connected via a single myth (E.g.: Orion, Scorpion, the Big Dog, the Rabbit. Or: Perseus, Cetus - i.e. the whale, Cassiopea, Cepheus, Andromeda, Pegasus). Wikipedia has nice summaries of the myths.
    Don't forget to add how this is all the Western tradition, and e.g. the Chinese have a completely different set of traditional constellations.
  11. Aug 12, 2015 #10
  12. Aug 12, 2015 #11
  13. Aug 12, 2015 #12


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