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Astronomy with a Stick: Daytime Astronomy for Elementary and Middle School Students
by Sylvia K. Shugrue
Changes in the length of daylight hours profoundly affect the daily and annual rhythms of our lives. Yet studies have shown that even college graduates fail to understand the relationships between the Sun and the Earth that cause these changes (Sadler and Schneps 1988). Students who learn by rote in a classroom do not fully understand or retain these important concepts. Astronomy skills properly introduced in elementary school will produce adults who understand the Earth's place in the universe.
Students from Garrison Elementary in Washington, D.C., prepare a circle on the ground in order to place a gnomon to indirectly observe the Sun's movement in the sky. [photo by W.T. Webb.]
You can help your upper elementary students experience these relationships through indirect observations of the Sun on the school playground and with models built in the classroom. These activities provide a continuous exercise in critical thinking and combine well with practice in the use of mathematics and language skills. The science information and skills gained in the activities form a foundation for future studies in astronomy and geography.
The over-arching question addressed by the following activities is “Why do daylight hours vary in length where we live?” The following activities have been arranged for convenience into three interchangeable units. It is best to begin the observations in September and continue at intervals throughout the school year. Unit 1 requires sunny weather to make observations, although some of the calculations are done later in the classroom. The unit 2 graphing activities, and unit 3 modeling activities can be done throughout the year and on overcast or rainy days.
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Sylvia K. Shugrue, now retired, was a science teacher in the Washington, D.C., public schools for many years. She is a past president of the National Science Teachers Association. These activities were developed with the help of the students of the Gage-Eckington Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The Reverend Francis J. Heyden, former chief astronomer at the Manila Observatory and, before that, chief astronomer at the Georgetown University Observatory, offered suggestions, guidance, and support throughout the four years during which these units were developed and tested. Stephen Berr, Director of the Colonial School District Planetarium, Norristown, Pennsylvania, reviewed this article. Reprinted from Science Activities, published by Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20026-1802.
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