The Sun is the star of summertime as it fills the days with warmth and sunshine. And in its role as our planet’s closest star, it provides an array of connections to energy concepts. For example, the Sun serves as an energy source; provides heat to keep us warm; and drives photosynthesis and the Earth processes, including the water cycle, local wind, and weather. The Sun helps make our planet habitable and life on Earth depends on the Sun.
In addition to the Sun’s role in weather on Earth, the Sun also impacts weather in space. In fact, there is a “darker” side to our Sun. The sun’s gaseous, dynamic landscape experiences massive solar storms that can impact daily life on Earth. With today’s dependence on modern technology, we feel the influences of solar storms more than ever. Solar storms involve radiation, charged particles, and magnetic fields, all of which can impact satellites and communications. Strong solar storms can also cause surges to the power grid, leading to outages in power and communications (such as email and cell phones).
Research is helping scientists understand and predict the Sun’s behavior. Today’s technology allows scientists to see and study the Sun in detail. The NOVA Sun Lab invites students to learn about the Sun and its weather through research that leverages the same tools as scientists!
Project goal: To help scientists predict solar storms
Task: Use data, images, and online tools to help predict solar storms
Science discipline: Earth Science
The NOVA Sun Lab includes the Helioviewer, an innovative solar observation tool developed to bring real-time data to understand the Sun’s surface and its atmosphere (see Figure 1). Note that teachers may need to remind students to never look at the Sun directly and that technology and images allow us to safely learn about the Sun from our computers.
The Sun Lab provides abundant resources for students and educators (see “Helpful Project Links”). In addition to The Sun Lab challenges, additional resources include helpful background information on the Sun, a video library, lesson plan, quizzes, and an educator guide. The Sun Lab includes the following challenges through online activities: solar cycle, storm prediction, and open exploration.
In the solar cycle online activity, students take the challenge to count sunspots. Sunspots are areas of the Sun that are cooler than other spots on the Sun’s surface. Sunspots tend to appear where there is a strong magnetic field. Counting sunspots is a simple and reliable way to estimate solar activity in the solar cycle. The fewer the sunspots, the less activity, while the greater number of sunspots tends to correspond to higher activity and a greater potential for solar storms. In the solar cycle activity, students will be guided through an online exploration counting sunspots, and they will be able to decipher if solar activity is increasing, decreasing, or remaining relatively stable.
In the storm prediction online activity, after students have learned how to count sunspots, they will begin to compare solar images to determine which area may produce a solar storm. In this guided activity, students will see that sunspots vary in size, motion, and complexity. After completing each scenario, students are able to view a video of what took place in the regions that they observed.
In the open exploration online activity, The Sun Lab encourages students to use the Helioviewer. The Helioviewer is a revolutionary tool that allows students to observe, ask questions, and engage in exploration and analysis. The Helioviewer provides access to near real-time images of the Sun, allowing students to access authentic data, as well as review historical data, and even compare data over time.
Materials you will need:
Possible prompts to help guide students in their open exploration using the Helioviewer include:
Students can work on investigations in teams and share the topic of their exploration as well as their findings and future questions with the class. Students may also be interested in researching related topics such as auroras, solar eclipses, and solar energy as a renewable resource. The Sun Lab provides a unique portal to engage students in science and the study of the Sun’s starring role in weather, seasons, and supporting life on Earth. •
How: Visit the project page (see “Project Home”). Participants can visit The Sun Lab and immediately begin engaging in challenges, or if preferred, participants can create a free account with NOVA Labs and use a login to participate.
Time needed: Variable
Special equipment needed: None
Cost: No cost to participate
Contact for more information: NOVALabs@wgbh.org
Safety: As with any science lab, classroom, or field activity, always ensure that you are following recommended safety practices; for more information on safety in the science classroom visit www.nsta.org/safety.
Project link on SciStarter—https://scistarter.org/the-nova-sun-lab
The Sun Lab Challenge—https://to.pbs.org/3NwDlIm
The Sun Lab Educator Guide—https://to.pbs.org/3zgRG7o
The Sun Lab Lesson Plan—https://bit.ly/3tgog5q
The Sun Lab Video Collection—https://to.pbs.org/3xcJvpZ
This column is the result of a partnership between SciStarter and the National Science Teaching Association. For more information about SciStarter and other citizen science projects, please visit www.scistarter.org.
Jill Nugent (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches science online, engages educators in citizen science experiences for the classroom, schoolyard, and beyond, and serves on the SciStarter Team. Follow SciStarter on Twitter: @SciStarter.
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