The Universe in the Classroom

Using Multicultural Dimensions to Teach Astronomy

Nalini Chandra & John Percy, University of Toronto

Activity 5: Decoding the Celestial Navigation Clues in the Song, Follow the Drinking Gourd.

Purpose: Discover practical uses of the sky as a historical navigational aid.


The words to the song and a description of their meanings can be found at the following web site: Print out just the song lyrics for your students.

Optional: book or audio tape of Follow the Drinking Gourd. Several versions are in print, the one by Jeanette Winter is best for younger children (7-10 years old). The version with the same title by Bernardine Connelly and Yvonne Buchanan is better for older children (9-12 years old).


1.     Give your students the lyrics to this folk song.

2.     Have them highlight the celestial and seasonal references.

3.     Have your students decode the references.

4.     Read the book or use the web reference to compare their results.


The cycling of Sun and Moon, have helped to determine the time of year for many cultures. These cycles are problematic because the length of a year is actually more than twelve lunar months and fewer than thirteen. A year that begins at the time of new Moon and a new revolution of the Earth around the Sun can never end in the same manner. This problem has plagued calendar developers for millennia. It is not surprising that different cultures have found different ways to solve this problem and have developed different calendars based on their different priorities and traditions.

Activity 6: Comparing Calendars of Different Cultures

Purpose: To introduce students to various ways in which different cultures have used the cycles of the Sun and or the Moon to establish their calendar.


Procedure: Have students compare calendars for different cultures and look for similarities and differences regarding days of significance and the appearance of the Moon and the position of the Sun with respect to the time of the year.

Observing the Sky through Different Eyes and for Different Purposes

The familiar constellation patterns and names are quite arbitrary. The Big Dipper goes by other names in other countries. Other cultures adopted different star patterns. For instance, the Chinese used smaller, more detailed star patterns. As a result, their records provide more precise positional information about certain celestial events. In addition, the Chinese had two different ways of interpreting and observing celestial events. One way the Chinese used astronomy was known as lifa; it was a discipline that aimed to understand the regularities and the predictable events in the celestial system through careful, observations, measurements and records. The other approach to astronomy was known as tianwen and in this discipline the Chinese observed the sky and kept watch for unpredictable events and tried to relate the significance of such events, to the happenings in their world. What is most impressive is that the activities of the tianwen specialists can be traced back to the late second millennium BC. Their records of the observations of phenomena such as meteor showers, comets, solar eclipses, Sunspots and exploding stars, called novae and supernovae are so detailed and accurate that they are useful for modern astronomers interested in these phenomena.

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