Engaging Students in Science Using the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Current events in science—such as the 2017 total solar eclipse—offer perfect opportunities to inspire students’ interest in the scientific concepts related to those events. The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, will be the first to pass over the United States from coast to coast in 99 years!

Recently, Dr. Jay M. Pasachoff, Chair of the IAU Working Group on Solar Eclipses and Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College, presented a webinar exploring the August 21 total solar eclipse. Sponsored by AccessScience and hosted by ACRL/Choice, the webinar focuses on the excitement of this rare scientific event and includes compelling footage of Dr. Pasachoff’s worldwide travels to observe solar eclipses. Watch the replay here.

Dr. Pasachoff coauthored the AccessScience Eclipse article, excerpted here:

Solar Eclipses

A solar eclipse can be understood as an occultation of the Sun by the Moon or, equivalently, the Moon’s shadow crossing the Earth’s surface. The darkest part of the shadow, from which the Sun is entirely hidden, is the umbra. The outer part of the shadow, from which part of the Sun can be seen, is the penumbra.

Solar eclipses can be central, in which the Moon passes entirely onto the solar disk as seen from Earth, or partial, in which one part of the Sun always remains visible. Central eclipses can be total, in which case the Moon entirely covers the solar photosphere, making the corona visible for the period of totality, or annular, in which case the Moon’s angular diameter is smaller than that of the Sun because of the positions of the Earth and Moon in their elliptical orbits. At an annular eclipse, a bright annulus of photospheric sunlight remains visible; it is normally thousands of times brighter than the corona, leaving the sky too blue for the corona to be seen.

The plane of the Moon’s orbit is inclined by 5° to the plane of the Earth’s orbit (the ecliptic), so the Moon’s shadow commonly passes above or below the Earth each month at new moon. But two to five times each year, the Moon’s shadow reaches the Earth, and a partial, annular, or total eclipse occurs. The Moon is approximately 400 times smaller than the Sun but is also approximately 400 times closer, so its angular diameter in the sky is about the same as the Sun’s. Thus the Moon fits approximately exactly over the photosphere, making the phenomenon of a total eclipse especially beautiful.

The upcoming total solar eclipse is one of many ways to engage students in science through current events. For another example download this AccessScience white paper, The Flint Water Crisis and Its Health Consequences.

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