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Madison Metropolitan School District

Skywatching: Teacher's Guide

Outline of concepts to be presented

Expanded description:

In the Skywatching program, we facilitate the exploration of the current sky. This show is constantly changing throughout the year to match the changing sky. This program highlights some of the interesting features of the current sky, and often includes news-worthy space science events. This program is easily adaptable to include features and concepts selected by teachers and group leaders.

The show begins with a general introduction to the planetarium in which we describe how the planetarium projector helps us to simulate the sky, and that we can set it to show us what the sky would look like on a specific date and time, and from a specific location. For most Skywatching programs, we use Madison, or the group's home as our location, and we usually start with the sky set for sometime during the current day. Then, we fast-forward through the rest of the daytime, through sunset, and into the night.

The times we set the planetarium projector to show depend on the times that the interesting features would be visible. But we try to focus on events and objects that would be observable by most people, and at reasonable viewing times. Typically, we set the sky for sometime between sunset and a typical bedtime for the audience.

Then, we guide the audience through the process of finding things like planets, constellations, and possible targets binoculars and small telescopes. This "guiding" is typically done through verbal hints or directions so that people have a chance to "find" the objects on their own, and then we point to the object to confirm its location. The idea is to give people some practice in the planetarium to find the same objects out in the real sky.

We often end the program by fast-forwarding through the rest of the night, through sunrise, and into daytime. Questions are usually welcome at this time, as well as during the program.

General Concepts Typically Covered

  • apparent changes in the sky throughout the day and night (rising in the east and setting in the west).
  • how to find star patterns like the Big and Little Dippers, and the constellations that they are in.
  • how to find the North Star (Polaris), and why we call it the North Star (because it stays in the north all day and all night), and the fact that the North Star is NOT the brightest star in the sky.
  • compass directions.
  • how to find constellations and planets that are currently visible.
  • the change in appearance of the sky from a city (with light pollution), to "out in the country" (out away from all of the city lights).
  • observing the moon in the daytime sky.

General Concepts that can be incorporated upon request (as appropriate for age and time)

  • what causes the change from day to night.
  • apparent changes in the sun's path throughout the year.
  • seasonal changes in constellations.
  • phases of the moon (simply observing the changes for a younger audience, or working toward an explanation for an older audience).
  • apparent changes in the planets over time (changing brightness, and position in the sky).
  • changes in the sky as seen from various locations on the earth.
  • light pollution: the problem, the causes, and solutions.
  • how to use a star chart: with groups of 40 or smaller, we can give them a star chart at the beginning of the program, teach them how to use it, and give them a chance to practice finding things using the star chart during the program. This option works very well for scout groups that require this skill for a badge.
  • mythology: this could be either the focus of the entire program (and we would call it Mythology instead of Skywatching) or it could be just another concept highlighted in the program.
  • much more (if you have other concepts you'd like us to tie in, ask!)

Connecting to the Classroom

This program works well at the beginning of a unit on related topics, but it can also be used as a summary activity at the end. We do encourage the audience to go out and look for the things that they learned about during the program, so it would be nice to follow-up with a discussion about what they were able to find.

Activities you might consider doing before your visit:

  • Have the students go out during the day and look for where the sun is in the sky, and look for the moon. Possibly go out more than one time on a sunny day and look for changes.
  • Have your students go out and observe the sky on a clear night just to see what they can notice. What do they see? What questions do they have about what they see?
  • Discuss compass directions (especially young students that may not be familiar with them).
  • Introduce them to other vocabulary words (see below).

Vocabulary: some of the words the students will likely encounter

  • planet
  • star
  • north, south, east, west
  • constellation
  • galaxy (especially our own galaxy, the Milky Way)
  • rising
  • setting
  • explore
  • observe
  • "fast-forward" (for example if you want a movie to go faster; however, used in this case to go later into the day or night)
  • binoculars
  • telescope
  • opposite (as in "Now, look in the opposite direction."

Activities you might consider doing after your visit: