The science team at North Kansas City Schools (NKC Schools) is always looking for innovative ways to engage students in hands-on, real-world learning opportunities. So, when our district was set to experience the total solar eclipse in 2017, we knew we wanted to maximize this natural phenomenon and create meaningful science experiences by having students participate in a full day of science exploration and a variety of data-collection investigations.

Total solar eclipse

Our district was located in the path of 100 percent totality, meaning our students and staff had the opportunity to experience all the eclipse had to offer. Teachers at all 30 of our schools planned special events for the day, including numerous cross-curricular and technology-enabled data-driven activities.

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Leading up to the event, for example, students read cultural explanations of eclipses in social studies classes, read myths about eclipses and wrote their own myth in English classes, and calculated the rate of rotation and the period of rotation for the sun in math classes.

They also completed to-scale solar system races in physical education classes and created eclipse-inspired pieces of art in art classes. While all eclipse-specific, these types of activities can all be adapted to teach students about other more common natural occurrences, such as meteor showers or snow storms.

Meaningful science experiences with data collection

The day of the actual eclipse was when many of our middle and high school students got to feel like real-world scientists as our science teachers led data-collection activities using Vernier probeware before, during, and after the eclipse. Being able to measure temperature changes, radiation levels, and changes in light brightness and wind speeds helped students learn about the many different facets of the eclipse.

As this was the first total eclipse most students and teachers had experienced, these data-collection activities provided an opportunity for very genuine scientific exploration. When students asked questions about the eclipse, they could actually go investigate and have data to back up their findings—there were no “assumed” answers.

The use of data-collection or any type of hands-on technology is not limited to an extraordinary event such as an eclipse, of course. It can engage students in meaningful science experiences in various contexts both in the classroom and in the field.

If you are just getting started, we have found these tips useful for incorporating data collection into our science instruction:

  • Jump in. Trust students with the technology and instill confidence in them to experiment with it. They are more adept at using technology than the adults are most of the time. As an educator, don’t wait until YOU are comfortable with it.
  • Maximize lab time. Provide students some time to acclimate to the technology during a class period prior to the lab. This allows for mistakes and questions during an ungraded exploratory time.
  • Put it in context. Provide a control so students have a comparison—this helps them better appreciate and understand the significance of the data they collect. For example, students compared the light intensity and temperature changes during the eclipse to the light intensity and temperature changes that took place the following day. They were able to analyze this data and better understand the environmental impacts of the eclipse.
  • Share findings. The ability to share data across the classroom using various apps and digital projection allows for students to compare different sets of data, engage in discourse around it with their classmates, and then draw their own conclusions.

Creating hands-on, data-focused learning opportunities for our students further engages them in scientific exploration. We want our students to really understand how the information they learn in class relates to the world around them, and data collection helps them make these connections.

About the Author:

Mitsi Nessa is the director of secondary curriculum, instruction, and professional development at NKC Schools. Michelle Beffa is a science teacher at New Mark Middle School in NKC Schools.


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