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The Solar Eclipse Is Coming. How to Make It a Learning Opportunity (Opinion)

Do you remember the excitement around the 2017 total solar eclipse? Well, it is going to happen again on Monday, April 8, of this year. In a path a little more than 100 miles across, going northeastward from Texas through the Midwest and into New England, 32 million people will be able to see a total eclipse. People who live in that path, also called the path of totality, will see the day turn into night and observe the faint atmosphere of the sun—the corona—surround the dark disk of the moon. Everyone else in North America (more than 400 million people) will see a nice partial eclipse.

One key problem in 2017 was that some school administrators, sometimes driven by their district’s insurance companies’ worry about lawsuits if eye damage occurred, decided not to let students go outside to observe this rare and awe-inspiring celestial event.

There are many misconceptions about eclipses that make their way into the world of education. One is that somehow the sun emits more dangerous radiation during an eclipse. Not true. Another is that even momentarily looking directly at the sun will cause permanent eye damage. Also, not true! Looking at the sun for a prolonged time can hurt your eyes, but very few people ever do that because it hurts. In fact, a 2000 study by ophthalmologists found no recorded cases of permanent vision loss after a solar eclipse passed across the United Kingdom in 1999.

The value of students observing this dramatic celestial phenomenon for themselves should be obvious. Science-learning standards in most states require students to know what causes the phases of the moon and how the clockwork-like motion of the sun and moon produce eclipses (e.g., the Next Generation Science Standards space-science performance expectations.) How better to learn about these concepts than by experiencing the real thing?

Observing the eclipse just requires going outside on school property. One can easily argue that it is less dangerous than sending students on a field trip on a school bus—no one needs to leave campus or get into a vehicle; they only have to venture outside.

Of course, a key to making the eclipses a successful learning experience is knowing how to observe them safely. Many educators feel the need to purchase safe solar-viewing glasses for every student. In actuality, the glasses can be shared among several students, as the slow covering and uncovering of the sun by the moon takes several hours. But even more important, solar-viewing glasses (sometimes called “eclipse glasses”) are overrated. One sees just a single small image of the sun.

There are many safe and exciting ways to project an image of the sun that also allow students to share the view with their peers. A great way to view a solar eclipse is to use something found in most homes: a colander for rinsing pasta or salad.

To try this activity during the eclipse, stand with your back to the sun and hold the colander so that the sun’s light shines through it onto the ground or a wall. Inside the colander’s shadow, there will be many tiny images of the eclipsed sun. The National Science Teaching Association has provided resource materials for educators, administrators, and families that include other ways to safely observe the eclipse.

We will not have the opportunity to see another total eclipse cross the United States until 2045. (There will be another one in 2044, but it won’t reach as much of the United States). So Monday, April 8, is the perfect opportunity for schools and families to use this beautiful celestial event to excite students’ interest in science. It also helps them learn important science concepts, including the cycles of celestial motion that define our units of time, such as the phases of the moon, and the way celestial events like eclipses can now be predicted hundreds of years in advance.

The eclipse makes the outdoors a wonderful, free laboratory for students, teachers, and staff to explore the way nature’s cycles work. May you have clear skies to experience this awe-inspiring phenomenon with everyone at your school.

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