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The Autumn Sky

As autumn comes in and we spend a little more time enjoying the weather before winter (in many parts of the US) lots of folks begin to watch the skies. Anyone who has wondered whether that bright object is a planet or a star has an interest in astronomy. 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy so the resources are current and rich with teaching ideas.

As a science Astronomy is quite old. The ancient mariners guided their travels with the help of the stars. There is a fair amount of geometry in celestial navigation and the sextant is a fascinating piece of equipment. The whole concept of the solar system and the stars is tied up in the big idea of systems and patterns and predictability.

The stars do not actually move across our sky, we do. Interestingly enough this is big news to many of your students. They know the Earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis. However, the way the sky seems to change while the observer feels no apparent movement is tough for kids to understand. The idea of a moving sky is a persistent misconception among many high school students.

To counteract this preconception it is a good idea to see about enlisting the help of the internet or better still, local astronomy buffs for a night of star and planet viewing. There are lots of web sites to get the ball rolling and get kids asking questions. One of my current favorites lets you track the international Space Station and find out when it will pass in a visible part of the sky view of any location. Check it out at:

Next, the current sky from different parts of the USA can be accessed at:

For a view of deeper space including some spectacular Hubble photographs and a link to NPR “Earth and Sky” pod casts check out

The Google site allows you to view a photo and zoom in on any part. This site is particularly useful for class presentations.

Lots of schools have access to a portable planetarium like “Starlab”. If that is available it is a great idea to make an event of it. Many teachers at the lower grades use the Astronomy unit as a chance to weave language arts with science and teach some interesting legends about the sky.

There is a lot of interest in the moon right now and the NASA site has some great links at

The solar system presents itself in the sky and you can tell the planets from stars as the stars twinkle and planets usually appear as solid points of light. Looking at the solar system and the predictable movement gives a good connection to gravity and scale. A closer look at the moon or planet surface features helps students understand some of the forces that shape our Earth. For example, the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere contributes to the crater features on its surface. Random bits of comets or meteors that enter the Earth’s atmosphere are mostly burnt up before they hit our surface. In that small understanding is the Earth science big idea that if we see a specific feature in on location and can identify the forces that caused it we can assume that when we see that same feature it was created by the same forces whether on earth or a distant planet.

We seem to navigate by GPS now but an understanding of latitude and longitude is key to how those devices work. The north star, Polaris, always stays about 1 degree from the celestial North Pole. If you measure the angle to Polaris and find that it is 10 degrees from the horizon you should be on a circle at about North 10 degrees of geographic latitude.

So Astronomy does help us understand our own planet. The big payoff to astronomy is that you open up the universe to your students with a spectacular free night time show almost every night.

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