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How Schools Can Turn the Solar Eclipse Into an Unforgettable Science Lesson

If the weather cooperates, science students of all ages could be in for quite a show on April 8. The first sign will be a sudden temperature drop. The sky will darken, and winds will shift. A dark shadow will appear on the horizon. Faint waves of light may waft across the ground. A ring of bright light will shine from the outer edges of the otherwise darkened sun. Then the moon will cover the sun completely and, for a few seconds, a thin red layer may appear around its outer rim.

This fantastical display describes a total solar eclipse, which happens in the same place on the planet only an average of once every 366 years, according to experts. It’s also the sort of once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that can get kids super excited about science—a worthwhile goal, especially amid a barrage of reports of disengaged students and sky-high rates of absenteeism.

The impending total solar eclipse raises several questions for educators—from how best to expose students to both its sheer magnificence and its value as a learning tool to, more broadly, how to infuse other ‘real world’ science lessons into the classroom. To get answers to these questions, Education Week reached out to science education guru Dennis Schatz, a senior fellow at the Institute of Learning Innovation, past president of the board of directors for the National Science Teaching Association, and advisor to the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

Schatz advocated for a carnival-like atmosphere to celebrate the coming eclipse; even, as he noted, several school districts will cancel school that day. He also shared his general thoughts on how teachers can generate interest in ‘real-world’ science learning and the obstacles that too often prevent it. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

What is your overarching philosophy of science education?

A fundamental philosophy of mine is to make science life-long, life-wide, and life-deep.

What do you mean by ‘life-deep’?”

There’s the workforce development focus of this; that is, the demand for STEM professionals. But life-deep also means getting involved and interested in science at a level that’s appropriate for you. You may be an accountant, but you may like to watch the National Geographic Channel or read science books and, if so, that’s an appropriate depth for you.

Where does engagement in science start?

Having been involved in schoolwide reform efforts, I’ve done a lot of work with teachers in the classroom, although I’ve never actually taught in one. Making science more engaging for students is probably the biggest challenge at the elementary school level, because not many elementary school teachers are trained in science. So the real goal, especially at the elementary level, is how to build enthusiasm in teachers so they can then get students excited.

So, what works?

It can start by getting teachers to think about how to use their local environment, or local community, to generate interest in science. For example, in the Northwest, salmon is a big issue [declining numbers in recent years have been blamed on climate change and human development], so that can be a way to generate interest—either from an environmental perspective or a food perspective. There are a lot of different real-world connections to be made with salmon for people who live in the Northwest.

What about getting students excited to experience the solar eclipse?

Absolutely, the solar eclipse can be awe-inspiring, and it can be fun. I was talking to a teacher recently who said: I don’t want to make it like a fire drill, where you take the students outside, with their glasses, take a look at the eclipse, and go back in. There’s a whole range in how districts are treating the [upcoming] eclipse. It takes two and a half hours, from beginning to end. Watching the eclipse slowly go across the sun is like watching ice melt. So you want to think about ways in which you can make it into a fun experience. Enlightened administrators will encourage building an entire event around it: Think art activities, food, music.

How far in advance would you suggest teachers begin preparing students for the solar eclipse?

It’s about two weeks out, and in the back of my mind, I’m saying: It’s way too late. I guess you could try to cram it all into just one day, but I would recommend spending more time in advance. Ideally, well before the eclipse, teachers will bring some science activities into class that model what’s happening with the phenomenon. There are many other real-life examples to draw from: Every six months, there’s at least one lunar and one solar eclipse somewhere on the Earth.

Will most schools use the eclipse as a learning opportunity?

A huge number of districts are canceling school for a variety of reasons; one is liability. In the Midwest and Northeast, the eclipse happens at the end of the school day, and people are worried about safety issues and higher-than-normal traffic during the point of totality [when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun]. In these cases of school closures, teachers who plan in advance can share information with students about how to experience the eclipse safely, and they can in turn go home and teach their parents.

How do you recommend students experience the eclipse?

I think glasses are overrated. When you look through a pair of glasses, you get this little yellow dot. There are so many indirect ways to view the eclipse. One of my favorites is with a basic kitchen colander. If you stand with your back to the sun and hold the colander so the sun’s light shines through it onto the ground or a wall, inside the colander’s shadow you’ll see many tiny images of the eclipsed sun.

Other tips for good viewing of the eclipse?

You want to find a place in the sun that’s not obscured by shadows, somewhere away from tall buildings. At most schools, this might be a playground area. I recommend going out a couple days ahead of time and finding out where the shadows are going to be, so you can avoid them. And of course, the most important element is clear weather.

When the eclipse is over, how can science teachers maintain students’ excitement about the natural world?

There are so many phenomena to observe and study—certainly in astronomy, from meteor showers to lunar eclipses—and all kinds of weather events, like hurricanes and earthquakes. You have to be sensitized, as a teacher, to think: I’m going to use these events to motivate an interest in science.

What resources do you suggest for teachers who want to stay informed about real-world science lessons?

The NSTA publishes three journals for educators, targeting elementary, middle, and high school students. I also like the New York Times’ science section. There’s also Scientific American magazine, which has moved from being a journal for scientists and now is much more geared for the lay audience.

So, if resources are available, what gets in the way of teaching real-world science lessons?

For teachers, it’s often a matter of figuring out: How do I feel like I have the freedom to move away from what I’m supposed to teach? Things are so standards-driven these days, there’s just no time or ability to deviate. Plus, you’re worrying about how kids are going to do on tests, and so many other things—social-emotional learning, safety. But if you aren’t generating an ongoing interest in the scientific phenomena that you can see and experience, then you’re doing a disservice to students.

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