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10 May 2015

Astronomy Teaching Resource from University of Nebraska

The UNL astronomy department freely provides
Flash simulations like this one
I've often taught a two to three week astronomy unit toward the end of the school year.  I cover basics of earthbound astronomy, most of which are tested on the New York Regents Earth Science exam: motions of the earth, the solar system, phases of the moon, how do we know the distance to stars, and so on.

This material is fun, but was always difficult to explain.  I did a lot of, "okay, pretend this basketball is the sun, and this Dunkin Munchkin is the Earth."  I used the computer program Starry Night to show what the stars and planets look like on any date, at any time, at any location on earth; that held attention well.  But for three-dimensional geometry that requires a point of view off of Earth, I had to do a lot of imagining with my students, with mixed results.

But this year I discovered this website from the University of Nebraska.  It includes a treasure horde of Flash simulations, most of which are exactly the kinds of ideas I had to explain using basketballs and flashlights.  On the first day of my unit, I used the meridional altitude simulator (screenshot above) to show how to determine the height of the sun at noon at any latitude on any day.

Not only does the Flash animation do instantly what used to take me a full minute to draw poorly on the board, but the simulations are freely available to my students outside of class.  Astronomy discussions are tough to sit through.  In astronomy I can't do the kinds of experiments I do in mechanics -- we can't just up and travel to midnight on the winter solstice in Costa Rica; we can't just run time fast and measure the altitude of Arcturus at midnight as a function of the date.  So students have to listen to me and each other, and they have to really pay attention to lecture and discussion.  That's not easy on a beautiful spring day.

So I can assign the same types of homework questions I have for years, but I can give students these simulations to play with at home.  Then, if I don't do enough drill and practice with the exact skills I want students to acquire -- or if I don't explain well some three-dimensional abstract celestial geometry -- my students have a resource that will show them how the universe works much better than either I or a textbook ever could.  Thanks, UNL.

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