Authentic STEM Lesson: Studying the Solar Eclipse

Students and their families and friends of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering came into school today (nine days before school starts) to observe and study the solar eclipse. This was an authentic STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) lesson where students got to do all four of the STEM skills in an authentic exercise of actual observation. In my previous post, I explained how I planned to set up a safe eclipse viewing using telescopes to project the image of the eclipse onto a shaded screen in a box–that’s what we did, and it worked out very well. I invited 75 students and their families, and I ended up getting 32 students with their families and friends, totaling more than 50 people. Our Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Principal, Assistant Principal, and some other school staff all joined in. This was more than I expected, given it’s still summer vacation when everyone has various commitments and vacations.

When everyone was arriving, I had telescopes, boxes, tape and paper ready to go. I also had posted a series of questions for students to answer as they observed the eclipse to guide their learning. I had a couple older students demonstrate how the projection viewer worked, and I gave a brief safety talk and pointed out the questions, then I let people form groups around each telescope, put together their boxes, then start viewing. Many people needed help getting the image to show up, but once they saw how to do it, they quickly caught on. While this was happening, I also had NASA’s live streaming of the event on a nearby classroom screen so people could watch that as they wished.

In our area of Connecticut, the eclipse was about 70% coverage with the peak at about 2:45, so after that, I called in the students in a circle, and we addressed the questions I had posted. Here is what I had asked:

  1. What is a solar eclipse? What is a lunar eclipse? Act out each with props (laid out in the classroom).
  2. What time would you expect to see a solar eclipse? a lunar eclipse? Explain why.
  3. What phase of the Moon is occurring during a solar eclipse? during a lunar eclipse? Explain why.
  4. Why are eclipses so rare?
  5. What motion are we observing during the eclipse–is the Moon or Sun moving relative to the other? Explain what this motion is. Calculate its angular speed.

They answered all of these questions with only a little help, and I was very pleased they got the idea of what we had observed.

Finally, I broke out eclipse cookies (Oreos) and demonstrated how to make a partial eclipse, a full eclipse, and a disappearing eclipse…

Here are photos from today’s observation and study:


Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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