Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Posts tagged ‘astronomy’

Let’s Take a Starwalk

I held my second astronomy night last Thursday, and despite a table giving way and causing two gallons of hot cider to spill, everything went very well. The massive 8-inch cannon of a telescope, on loan from our local CESA cooperative, gave us great views of Jupiter and its four moons. The fancy (i.e., complicated) telescope that I purchased last year gave us good views of the moon and my two smaller (i.e., a lot simpler to aim) telescopes gave us views of the Galaxy in Andromeda and the Great Cluster in Hercules.

But the real star of the night (pun intended) were the two iPads that Scott Schiller and I had on hand. The app Starwalk was heavily featured in the original iPad commercials and for good reason: It’s fantastic. Hold it up to the sky and it shows you in real time what constellation you are looking at. Do the pinch-zoom thing and you can see deep-sky objects visible in your telescope. Adjust the clock, and you know what will be visible in a few minutes or a hundred years from now.

My students and their parents huddled around the screens looking up at the sky at stars they had always seen but never known the names of. The real fun happened, as predicted by Starwalk, at exactly 7:36pm. That was when the International Space Station flew overhead as a bright orange spot in the sky, it and its three astronauts flying cruising at 18,000 MPH. My students and their parents were in awe as it cruised by. Its square shape could be made out through binoculars. Exactly 7:42, as predicted by Starwalk, it passed again under the horizon.

Astronomy Night

As I mention frequently, we are a small school, and being a small school means that some people have to wear a lot of hats.  My official title is teacher; however, the reality is I teach fifth grade in the morning and technology to fifth and sixth grades in the afternoon. I’m the gifted and talented coordinator for the district and the de-facto technology coach for the staff.

Last Thursday I organized and hosted an astronomy night for the community put on by the Elementary Science and Engineering Club.  I have never organized something this big. In fact, I had wanted to hold it later in the month, but the weather report was getting ugly fast and the unseasonable warm, clear nights we had been having were numbered.

To say it was hectic was an understatement.  I had to train several high school volunteers (many completing a community service requirement and with little knowledge of astronomy) on how to use the telescopes. Due to an obligation to an after-school field trip, I actually got to the event location, a baseball diamond, as the sun was going down and people were showing up.

The next two hours were a blur.  If you asked me how it went at the end of the night, I would have said, “I don’t know.”  I spent most of the time running around, keeping the three telescopes lined up on Jupiter and the moon, although the high school kids were a great help in this.  Nothing teaches you that the earth is rotating quite like keeping a tiny point of light in your telescope only to find it racing out of your vision after a few minutes.

I don’t know how many people came—I suspect around 40. But I know that I went through more than 50 cups of hot apple cider during the evening.  I had three telescopes ranging from a small tabletop telescope costing about $60 to a $2500 one weighing at least a hundred pounds on loan from CESA (our educational cooperative).  I had a table set up with Stellarium and a scavenger hunt for constellations.

The tragedy of the evening came when I tried to adjust my new telescope and it fell off of the tripod, hitting the ground and cracking the eyepiece off.  I was crushed.  But a fellow teacher told me that “it did more good being used and broken, than being in a box.”  Despite my misgivings and the stress, I know that it went well, because the next day I had the kids who attended fill out a survey in Google Documents that told me as much. Also, the next day I was hounded by kids wanting to know more, telling me that they’d stood out on their decks with binoculars, and that they wanted telescopes for Christmas.



I want to share a great app for anyone teaching astronomy, the planets or the moon.  It is called Stellarium.  It is an open-source program—100% free—that turns any computer into an instant planetarium.  You simply tell it where you are in the world and what time it is (or what time you will be stargazing) and it will tell you what you can look at.  Students can find out exactly what constellations will be visible, what position the moons of Jupiter will be in, what phase the moon will be in Christmas night and even what satellites are currently overhead.

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