Teacher Tips


Hi PTK'ers,

Ever since astronomy became part of our middle school science curriculum I've attempted to conduct star parties with my students. It seemed as natural as maintaining live plants and animals in a life science classroom or making actual outdoor weather measurements while studying meteorology. Ironically, many teachers cover astronomy related topics without ever considering such an enjoyable event. Fortunately, I live across the street from a city park which is easy for parents to find, provides lots of parking, has a pavilion for refreshments, yet is far enough from bright city lights to offer fair viewing opportunities. This is where I conduct our annual star party. Suggestions:

1. Dittos to Roger Stryker who suggested an 8" telescope. We conducted our event for many years with two 4" refractors set on Jupiter and/or Saturn. I always had 7-8 binoculars to share with the students and encouraged them tobring their own from home. I recently purchased an 8" Meade Dobsonian Starfinder Series scope ( about $500, also with grant funding ) and its performance is outstanding. However, most of the viewing we do is with the naked eye and/or binoculars. We have a special mount for a 10 x 50 pair which attaches to a tripod and allows the binoculars to be adjusted to different heights while keeping the viewing target in focus - great for those tall 8th grade girls and short 8th grade boys. To protect the students from tripping over the scopes in the dark, hang a glow (light) stick from each telescope. These can be found in the outdoor camping department of your local Wal-Mart, sporting goods store or hardware store.

2. Have the students build star finders in class to bring to the party. We always practice using these in advance as they can be difficult at first for the kids. They should also bring flashlights for reading the starfinders but should tape red plastic over the lens to protect their night vision. Suggest blankets, too.

3. I borrow a bull horn from the P.E. teacher to use when "walking" the kids across the sky. The neighbors get the lesson, too....whether they want to or not...ha, ha.

4. Refreshments are nice. Get parent volunteers to help in this area so astro free you to work with the kids and the scopes.

5. Invite parents, other staff, board members....super P.R. Most have never looked through a telescope and they are usually as excited as the kids.

6. Plan ahead so as not to conflict with any other school function. I usually schedule it from 9 to 10 pm.

7. We use the "homework hotline" which works great if the sky turns cloudy and you need to cancel the event. Sure beats having 100 kids call your house!

8. Keep it simple. Don't try to wow them with difficult to see objects or you'll quickly lose your audience. Save the best to last.

9. I usually spend 15-20 minutes "walking" them across the sky through several major ( easy to see ) constellations, the Pleiades, the galaxy Andromeda and then challenge them to find others using their starfinders. We eventually move to the scopes and save Saturn to the end - it's the grand finale!

10. Check the lunar cycle and pick a night near a new moon. Light from a near full moon will wash out many of your best viewing targets.

A well planned star party and cooperating weather can combine to be the highlight of the year for your science students. Please feel free to e-mail back with any questions. Happy to help :)

Tim McCollum
Charleston Middle
School Charleston, IL


Greetings, Tim!

The only thing I could think of to add to your detailed star party outline is a good, focused flashlight that would allow pointing out constellations and celestial objects - works like a miniature search light. I've also had turn up at school a consumer model, keychain laser light (I took it up from a student and really wanted to keep it:-). Maybe this would work even better, I don't know - I can't justify buying one to try it out.

For those who haven't already bookmarked this site: http://www.exploratorium.edu/observatory/

Lots of goodies, including calculating relative planet distances and weight on different planets, and an impressive piece on sunspots - with sound and film clips!

We're getting geared up for LIVE FROM THE SUN!

Roger Stryker
5th Grade
Austin, Texas

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