Later this summer, science and STEM teachers will have the opportunity to engage students in a truly unique—and rare—learning opportunity as a total solar eclipse will span portions of the United States for the first time in 38 years. There are many ways that teachers across the country can incorporate various hands-on, technology-enabled lessons before and during the viewing experience to help students make the most of this phenomenon, known as the Great American Eclipse. The eclipse takes place on August 21, 2017.

About the Eclipse

The difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial eclipse is literally “night and day,” and it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed, if possible. I was fortunate enough to witness the United States’ last total solar eclipse in 1979, and it was so incredible that I traveled to the Australian Outback in 2002 to witness another one. After this year, the next total solar eclipse happening stateside will be in 2024 and then again in 2045. The first will be in the middle of the country and the latter can be viewed from California to Florida.

To view the Great American Eclipse, it is advised to travel to a spot in the path of totality—an approximately 70-mile-wide band spanning from Oregon to South Carolina—and to dedicate a couple of hours to witness the various phases of the eclipse.

At “First Contact” a little dent in the sun will appear as the moon just starts to block the sun’s rays. After First Contact, there will be a period of about an hour as the moon gradually blocks more and more of the sun. During this time, it is important to only look at the sun through approved solar viewing glasses or in a sun projection device.  As the moon comes close to blocking all of the sun, watch the ground to the west as the shadow of the moon will approach very rapidly.

At “Second Contact” the sun will completely disappear and things will seem very strange—it’ll become dark in the middle of the day. First, the Diamond Ring will be visible. This is the last bit of light from the sun that can be seen, and it lasts only a second or two. This is the signal that it is safe to take off your eye protection.

During this time, the ring of Bailey’s Beads, which is caused by the sun’s light making it through the low lying canyons all around the moon’s surface, will be visible, and the corona of the sun will glow. Watch for solar prominences or red flares of light shooting out from the sun, and look around and experience an all-encompassing sunset, not just one positioned in the west. Look around the sky and you should be able to see planets. Totality will last for up to two minutes before the sky begins to get brighter again starting in the west.

At “Third Contact,” the Diamond Ring appears again signaling it is time to put back on the solar eclipse protective glasses. The sun will gradually become more and more visible, and then, in about an hour, there will be “Fourth Contact” when the moon no longer blocks the sun at all. Most people will have stopped watching the eclipse well before Fourth Contact.

(Next page: How to turn the Eclipse into an incredible STEM lesson)


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