The Eclipse Brings Science to Students and Society

As the darkness of totality approached, the birds grew quiet, the crickets started to chirp, and the students started to cheer. At least where I was at Hallsville Middle School in Hallsville, MO during the Solar Eclipse 2017. I need to send a special shout out to Susan German who is the 8th grade teacher at Hallsville and a longtime friend and colleague. Back in the spring when I started to consider where I would go for the eclipse – she said, “Come to Missouri. You can stay with me and either go into town which would be Columbia, MO or come spend the day with my eighth graders.” The same offer was made to another friend Bev Devore Wedding and there was no doubt about it – the excitement for both seeing friends AND the eclipse is what was the conversation throughout the summer. The expectant excitement for the eclipse however was nothing compared to the actual excitement experienced by students and adults alike. While constantly surveying the crowd of students prior to totality to ensure eclipse glasses were being worn correctly, glancing upwards with my own glasses, and trying to take photos of shadow bands which never did appear in our location due to overcast conditions, it occurred to me for a single moment during totality – I had tears in my eyes. Apparently, I, my friends, and Susan’s students were not alone in this characterization.

Friend, colleague, and astronomer, Phil Plait who writes for the Slate and is also known for his writings titled “Bad Astronomy” states at the beginning of Episode 5 of the Crash Course in Astronomy that he has “friends who tell me that seeing a total solar eclipse is literally life-changing; the serene beauty and majestic clockwork motion of the cosmos unfolding above you is transformative, showing you viscerally the connection between you and other objects in the Universe.” This feeling seemed to permeate throughout the United States as August 21, 2017 grew closer and closer.

Excitement for the Eclipse

The last solar eclipse that appeared in the United States occurred on February 26, 1979 but that was only visible across part of the United States and a partial one at that. I was not yet a teenager at that point and do remember the eclipse but not the excitement that surrounded this one. The 2017 Eclipse is the first one in ninety-nine years to traverse the entire continental US from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Since that point in time, science and technology has advanced, new questions have arisen, and the media had helped to promote the eclipse. From the scientific perspective, NASA was going to launch weather balloons to study the eclipse from 100,000 feet. They asked citizens across the country to participate in Citizen Science activities and submit data. And NASA sent two jets to track the eclipse along the path of totality and capture data about the corona by creating a time-lapse video. The eclipse even merited its own website to keep people apprised of information.

As the date drew closer, the issue seemed to be the last-minute science (well at least eclipse) convertees who now needed a way to view this safely – the issue how to obtain a pair of the elusive eclipse eyewear over the weekend. I was fortunate, Susan had been working towards this day since January. She had eclipse glasses, had arranged in some fundraising manner to provide glasses for the students at her school, and even was able to cover some additional groups for cost. In following the news outlets, it was evident that other schools across the country were just as excited. A quick search indicated that many schools across the country had arranged for eclipse glasses for their students so that they could experience this opportunity. Teachers became even more creative than normal in ensuring that their students had glasses. Canyon Springs STEM Academy in Anthem, Arizona had a teacher who was surprised when the price went up and managed to get the additional funds through a crowdfunding account. Twin Falls Idaho School District paid for glasses for their students since school was in session. These and many other districts were fortunate in the fact that they were able to obtain glasses that met the safety specifications for the eclipse. Other districts were not as fortunate when the glasses they purchased were either recalled or found to miss the safety standard. Still other districts made a decision that restricted teachers from taking students outside during the eclipse and required them to remain indoors for safety reasons.

Eclipse Day

Many schools such as Hallsville Middle School had activities planned for their students that engaged them in the science of the day. Fifth grade students had activities such as making sun tea and observations planned by Betsy Haag O’Day while eighth grade students were creating sundials to determine how the length of the shadow changes throughout the day to determining what types of materials protect the skin from UV rays to solar ovens to cook smores. Many districts were featured on local television stations discussing what they would be doing during the event. For example, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida had a featured spot on their local Fox channel and included activities on their website for parents who wanted to experience the eclipse with their children at home. David Evans, Executive Director for NSTA relayed his experiences in Glendo, Wyoming where the Glendo School opened its school location to people who were participating in the Sky and Telescope Eclipse Viewing Trip. A K-8 school with only sixty-two students and once science teacher shared their location with others from around the country. Other school districts which included Randall Johnson’s school in Nebraska also opened their doors to neighboring states and schools. They hosted students from Colorado.

In the end, those who had the opportunity to experience it will never forget it. Students will have learned more about the sun, earth, moon system; teachers will have used natural phenomena to teach; and citizens across the country will have come together for science. Google engaged people in a Citizen Science Project called the 2017 Eclipse Megamovie. While it’s not totally the same to see twilight hit and the shadow to fall before darkness encroaches for a mere couple of minutes, it is definitely a way to remember the day and event.

Note: Solar eclipse photos in this blog posting are used with permission from Robert Sparks. If you want to see more of his amazing astronomical photos, follow him on Twitter @halfastro

Thanks Susan German for the opportunity for totality and outstanding students.

Christine Anne Royce is NSTA’s President Elect and a professor of education at Shippensburg University, where she also serves as department chair. Email her at caroyce@aol.com or follow her on twitter @caroyce.


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2 Comments

  1. Bev DeVore-Wedding
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    It was a great weekend and eclipse day! What better way to do science but with friends and enthusiastic students!!

  2. Bob Riddle
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Actually the last solar eclipse visible from the U.S.A. was in 2012, a partial.
    And a most memorable one was an annular solar eclipse on my birthday in 1994. That one passed right over Kansas City.

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