It’s official: the world is not flat, and on Aug. 21 California science teachers will prove it.
With the total solar eclipse coinciding with the start of school for thousands of California students, teachers around the state will be using the rare solar spectacle to ignite students’ interest in science, showing them first-hand evidence that the earth rotates around the sun, the moon spins around the earth
, and all three of them are undeniably round.
“The eclipse will help students appreciate the beauty of space — feel that joy and sense of wonder, ask questions and create their own journey of understanding the universe and their place in it,” said John Panagos, a teacher at Burckhalter Elementary in Oakland.
“If we can get them excited about the eclipse, then that can translate to so many other subjects,” he said.
For most of California, the solar eclipse will be visible from about 9 to 11:20 a.m. Aug. 21, peaking at about 10:15
, as the moon passes between Earth and the sun. Those in California will see about 75 percent of the sun blocked, but those in a 100-mile swath of its direct path — from Salem Ore., through Yellowstone National Park, across southern Illinois and over Charleston, S.C. — will glimpse a total blockage. The sky will darken. Temperatures will fall. Stars will twinkle and crickets will chirp.
“It’ll almost become night for a few minutes. The world around you will change. It’ll be all-encompassing,” said Ben Burress, an astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. “It’ll be a profoundly stunning experience, a rare treat.”
In California, sunlight will dim like an autumn dusk, Burress said.
Science teachers and astronomers aren’t the only ones fascinated by the eclipse. Such solar phenomena have transfixed humans since ancient times. Some cultures believed an eclipse was a fierce beast devouring the sun. The Greeks thought it was a sign of impending doom. In the U.S. in 2017, most see it as a peek at the mystery of the universe.
Although the eclipse will be visible, at least partially, over all of North America, thousands are expected to converge along the path of total blockage. Hotel rooms in cities like Jackson, Wyo., and Carbondale, Ill., are mostly sold out, and those that aren’t are going for thousands of dollars a night. Campsites on private land are fetching $500 a night.
“Interstates will be jam-packed. It’ll be like the zombie apocalypse,” Burress said.
Eclipses are not actually that unusual. Solar and lunar eclipses occur a few times a year somewhere on the planet, but usually over the ocean or at odd times, like 3 a.m. Total solar eclipses over the United States are relatively rare. The last one was in 1979, and the next one will be in 2024. A total solar eclipse will pass over California in 2045.
The eclipse is a boon for educators. NASA, the American Astronomical Society and the National Science Teachers Association have all compiled teaching materials for parents and teachers to create lessons for students of all ages. The eclipse provides lessons in math, astronomy, reading and history, and is an event children will probably remember their entire lives.
Viewing a partial eclipse while in elementary school made a huge impression on Nathan Taxel, director of outdoor and maritime education at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.
“It was in the early 1990s but I still remember it vividly,” he said. “Viewing an eclipse can be tremendously impactful, but especially for young people. It’s a remarkable experience that people will take with them for a long time. It can really get them excited about science.”
The Ocean Institute will open an hour early on Aug. 21 and eclipse-watchers will gather at the end of the pier, where special viewing glasses will be available and science teachers will be on hand to explain what’s happening.
Taxel is hoping for a big crowd.
“As a science nerd and an educator, every time I walk out of my house I see cool things in nature, a bird I’ve never seen before, an unusual weed growing in the sidewalk cracks,” he said. “An eclipse is like that on a grand scale, a chance to experience first-hand the intricacies of our planet and the universe.”
California’s new science standards, called Next Generation Science Standards, include astronomy lessons at almost every grade level, but Burckhalter Elementary in East Oakland takes astronomy to a new level. Named for astronomer Charles Burckhalter, the first director of the Chabot Observatory, the school is home to the National Center for Elementary Astronomy Studies. Children from transitional kindergarten through 5th grade learn about the sun, planets, black holes, comets and other wonders of space.
Panagos leads astronomy lessons in every classroom, and encourages students to gaze through telescopes, make models of the solar system and ask plenty of questions. For teachers planning lessons on the eclipse, he suggests a lot of advance preparation for students and teachers alike: homework, videos, modeling, research — anything to maximize students’ appreciation for the event.
“Am I hoping the eclipse turns kids on to astronomy? I hope every day turns kids on to astronomy,” he said. “Astronomy is ancient. It’s beautiful. It can draw you in to so many other subjects.”