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)

Collecting Data during the Eclipse

The total solar eclipse provides a great opportunity for students to collect and analyze data and make scientific connections as they experience a real-world phenomenon. A great time to engage students in hands-on learning during the eclipse is after First Contact. Educators can incorporate various technology-enabled investigations and cross-curricular lessons related to the natural occurrences that often happen throughout the duration of the eclipse:

  • It gets darker. Students can investigate the rate at which it gets darker, how the light level compares to the percentage of the sun visible, and whether these two things are proportional by using a light sensor to measure light levels.
  • The wind changes as you approach totality. Students can use an anemometer to collect wind speed data.
  • It gets cooler. Students could use a data-collection device to collect temperature, wind speed, and light level data over the course of a couple of hours. It would be easy for students to compare the temperature and wind speed readings with weather station data from just outside the region of totality.
  • The color of the sky changes. To find out what is really going on, students could use a spectrophotometer to studying the emission spectrum.
  • There are strange animal sounds. Students could try to record these noises.
  • Clouds form. Students could try to document this change in a video. The eclipse creates its own weather by cooling the air and causing clouds to form, and it would be interesting to try and capture a video of the people watching the eclipse, showing both the weather and people’s reaction.

At Vernier, we are encouraging teachers across the country to share their data and photos with us, so we can provide a summary of this information after the eclipse.

Practical Tips and Resources

If you plan to experience the Great American Eclipse, either by yourself or with your students, here are some practical pointers:

  • Photography: While some may try to take photos during totality, remember that this will be a very short, very exciting time that lasts two minutes or less. Let the professional photographers take the photos and just enjoy the eclipse.
  • Plan Ahead:  Anticipate being at the eclipse site for at least an hour and a half and being in the sun for all but a couple minutes of that time. Wear sunscreen, bring water, and do not forget your solar glasses or solar projection system.
  • Traffic:  It would be a real bummer to be stuck in traffic, outside the path of totality, during the eclipse. It is estimated that more people will come to the United States for this eclipse than for any other event, including the World Cup, Super Bowl, or Indianapolis 500. There may be some epic traffic jams, so arrange a spot to visit long before the eclipse starts.

If you are interested in learning more about the total solar eclipse, check out these trusted sources:

The total solar eclipse is truly a spectacular astronomical event—and learning experience—that both educators and students won’t soon forget. Mark your calendars and make sure to experience it to its fullest!

About the Author:

David Vernier is the co-founder of Vernier Software & Technology (www.vernier.com). To learn more about the resources and tips provided by Vernier for the Great American Eclipse and to participate in its data-sharing project, visit www.vernier.com/eclipse.