The Universe in the Classroom

Sharing the Night Sky with Your Students

by Kevin Murphy

It’s going to be cold out," I said, pulling a hat down over my ears. Dressed as though headed out on an arctic expedition, I pulled on my gloves and headed out the door. My wife gave a quick, "Have fun," and shut the door quickly behind me.

I marched to my truck and loaded a few telescopes into the back, wondering if anyone would be at the soccer field to greet me. It was a beautiful night, the clearest in weeks. But it was cold. My truck must have sensed what I was feeling because the engine hesitated before roaring to life.

As I pulled up to the field where we were doing our observing at the time, I could see the constellation Orion dominating the sky. Below him I could see the shadowy figures of students who had already arrived. A few jogged to the truck to help me unload the telescopes. Others crowded tightly together, shielding themselves from the wind.

One of the students asked the temperature. I looked to the thermometer hanging from my ski coat and replied, "5 below." A low groan came from the crowd.

The two dozen or so students who braved that cold night saw, all for the first time, the Orion Nebula in its full glory. It seemed to hang in three dimensions with clarity unusual for suburban Chicago.

school star party
School star party. Image courtesy of author.

While unusual in its extremes, that observing experience is just one of many I’ve had with my high school students. From the routine instruction of locating Polaris or aligning a telescope to the shouts that accompany each meteor, our night observations have become the cornerstone of the astronomy course. It is also, without question, the most popular part of the course.

It is sometimes difficult for people to believe that 50 or more high school students and their teachers could gather, in the dark, to learn and have fun. But that is exactly what we do. In all the years that I have been leading nighttime observations, I have never had a single problem with my students. Even more than an astronomy teacher, I am an advocate for our young people. We cannot provide our society’s children enough healthy, safe, and motivational activities.

Because of the size of our program – between 120 and 150 astronomy students each year – we’ve been able to try and test many astronomy activities. If you’re thinking about sharing the night sky with your students, let me offer some things that have worked for our school.

1. Pick a spot on school grounds. Although it may not be an ideal place, it’s simply the soundest professional choice.

2. Treat it like a field trip: get approval from your principal, send permission slips home, take attendance. Allow only authorized students to attend. You know the routine.

3. Start slowly. When I started teaching astronomy we took the students out once a quarter. In later years it became once a month and then twice a month. We now offer weekly observing sessions, but we were able to grow into the role.

4. Enlist some help. We always try to have at least two teachers at the observations. On nights when we expect larger numbers of students (eclipses, meteor showers, etc.), we invite parents to attend.

5. Telescopes are optional, really! We usually don’t even bring them out until after our 3rd or 4th observation, some time in mid-October. So few students have ever taken the time to look up, I want to encourage them to see the beauty of the night sky.

6. Before bringing out the telescopes, plan classroom practice. Most students have never touched a telescope. Allow them to see and touch them in a classroom where you can provide instruction and ample light!

7. Consider offering a morning observation. Some of our most attended sessions have actually been before sunrise on a school day.

8. Have a ‘poor weather’ plan. In the past we’ve used an answering machine to inform students as to whether the observation was canceled. We now have access to a meeting area inside the building and meet rain or (star) shine. Our poor weather options include working in the computer lab, watching astronomy-related movies (Deep Impact, Contact, etc), using a portable planetarium (Star Lab), or simply using the time as a study session.

9. Provide the students with specific tasks. At the beginning of each year we provide the students with a laminated card with about 30 astronomy-related objectives. These include: identify Polaris, identify six ancient constellations, state the phase of the Moon, identify any visible planets, use a telescope to find M57, etc. If the student completes one during an observation, we use an odd-shaped hole punch to mark the card. We’ve found this the best way to keep students on task in the evening. At the end of the term the students have a record of their accomplishments (some turn it into a competition) and receive extra credit for each punch.

10. And finally, don’t forget to celebrate the excitement of your students’ astronomy experiences. You and I may not find great satisfaction in identifying Arcturus or separating Albireo in a telescope, but your students will.

I remember, as a boy, sitting and looking up for hours into the stars and wondering what was out there. A neighbor owned a telescope and, every now and then, he would let us look at Jupiter, Saturn or the Moon. As an astronomy teacher, I want to stir that same curiosity in my students. As an astronomy enthusiast, I know few of us have been inspired by a textbook or web page. We live for clear nights when the seeing is good. For that reason I’ve made the commitment to share the excitement of the night sky with my students. It’s not so much the stars in the sky that take me out to the soccer field on cold winter nights anymore. It’s the excitement in my students’ eyes.

Kevin Murphy is currently on leave as Illinois Teacher of the Year 2000 from Lyons Township High School, LaGrange, Illinois.

<< previous page | 1 | 2 |

back to Teachers' Newsletter Main Page