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Teaching Astronomy: The Lost Art of Wonder

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By Tony Cerasol

Teaching Astronomy

Can you remember the last time you ended a lesson, looked over at your kids and their mouths hung open and their eyes bulged wide as they waited with bated breath for some explanation as to how something this amazing is possible?

If your kids aren't reeling with awe and wonder after a lesson in astronomy something is wrong, but you can fix it. Astronomy is one of the few sciences that children naturally gravitate towards (excuse the pun).

  • Did you know the Sun's energy output in one second is more than the human race has generated in all its history?
  • Can you imagine plasma tornadoes on the Sun that spin thousands of miles high and are as wide as North America?
  • Have you seen the dead volcano on Mars that is so tall that its peak actually pokes through the planet's atmosphere and into space itself?
  • Can you believe that there is a canyon on Mars that is nine times longer than the Grand Canyon on Earth?
  • Believe it or not, Jupiter was almost a star. If it had become a star, life would not be possible on Earth.
  • The coldest surface in the solar system is Neptune's moon Triton, freezing at -420 °F. That's just 40 degrees above absolute zero - the coldest anything can get.
  • We have discovered over 1,400 planets orbiting other stars besides the Sun.

Try using these 3 simple and effective tactics when teaching astronomy:

Method #1

Start with a "big question" that the student should be able to answer at the conclusion of the lesson.

This does not mean the student can't answer it at all right now; let him or her try.

An "Interpretive question" that stimulates critical thinking by forcing the student to combine information in the text with prior knowledge and that ideally can't be answered with one exact answer. The answer to an interpretive question is a conclusion gathered from several areas of knowledge.

Interpretive Question: Besides the Earth, where else in the solar system might you be able to live with a space suit and some basic supplies?

Non-Interpretive Question: How many moons does Saturn have?

A non-interpretive question is also known as a factual question.

Factual Question: How long does it take Mercury to revolve around the Sun?

Interpretive Question: Do you think that life elsewhere in the universe is likely or unlikely? Support your answer.

Method #2

Use captivating pictures, video and sound.

If you would like your son to appreciate golf, introducing him to golf on the radio is not the media to best spark his interest. If you would like your son to appreciate the universe, text in a book is not the best place to start, though it could be a supporting media.

As the student answers the question, let him look through some pictures to help inspire answers. Search ‘solar system' using Google and click the images button for pictures.

Watch video by searching YouTube for "planets".

Go to the NASA site (www.nasa.gov) and search for video of the moon landing or audio of Neil Armstrong's first words on the moon. Ask your student what his or her first words would be after landing on the moon.

Method #3

Connect the lesson to the student's life and future.

Did you know that the people who will eventually go to Mars are probably between the ages of 6-16 right now in 2011? Could you be one of the people to go?

What were Neil Armstrong's first words when he stepped out onto the moon's surface? What would you say to the world as they listened as you stepped out onto Mars?

What might you contribute to such a trip even if you didn't go personally? We need astronauts, astronomers, physicists, medical professionals, propulsion experts, psychologists, engineers and a myriad of other professionals. We need politicians to rally the public and secure the funding. There are many ways you can help. Get to it!

Tony Ceraso is the creator of the popular Home School Astronomy computer-based teaching presentations. He has a Master's Degree in Education and works in computer information technology. For more information about making Astronomy wonderful for your children go to www.HomeSchoolAstronomy.com or email comments or questions to Tony.Ceraso@HomeSchoolAstronomy.com.

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