Yesterday morning I realized that I was supposed to go into my daughter’s kindergarten class after lunch to teach a lesson on the constellations. I had hoped to lesson plan over the weekend, but I had to scramble while at work and preoccupied with a thousand other things.
I brought my macbook, a big screen I borrowed from the IT office on campus, and our office’s digital projector. I was using a great free program planetarium called Stellarium. It’s a beautiful program and very easy to use. The kids loved it.
You have to give kids a few minutes any time you’re using a projector. The truth is I could have just projected a white screen and let them play shadowpuppets for 45 minutes. But once they got that a little out of their system, they settled down.
Although I was trying to teach them about constellations, we talked about a few other things. We started off with why we can’t see stars during the day. I sped up the program and showed them the sun’s progress across the sky, and then demonstrated why that motion isn’t the sun moving but us, using a little dolly and one of the old rickety globes the school has with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia still on it. They got that. They also eventually got the trick question at the start of this paragraph…you can see stars during the day, well, at least one star. Our sun.
They knew about planets from their previous science lessons so we found Saturn in Leo, and zoomed in to look at its rings and moons. The program has excellent graphics. My only worry with computer graphics is that the actual modest telescopic view students might get will pale in comparison. I feel like you have to work really hard these days to wow people…they have to get the authenticity of the telescopic image versus the man-made animation or photograph. It’s that “actual photons” thing from my first posting. Anyway, we were finally off to constellations.
Before I polluted their minds with the superstitions of cultures and eras past, I thought I’d see what they saw in the stars. I showed them the Big Dipper and one girl got it right…”That’s the Big Bear.” Her father is a physicist. Most people see a spoon. The other students didn’t really, perhaps because this time of year of the Big Dipper is standing on end. Someone saw a shovel. Nobody saw a plow.
I talked about how people look up at the stars and draw imaginary lines between them to make patterns, and I talked about how different people and different cultures come up with different designs and stories. Then I handed them sheets with the constellation orion on it…just the stars, no lines. They were supposed to draw what the stars reminded them of. The results were really split developmentally. The littlest kids, on loan from the toddler room, got the line thing but not really connecting them. They drew lots of little lines everywhere that looked like whiskers on an old man’s face.
The older kids got more into it, but there was a clear split between those who could use the pattern as a framework for a drawing and those that simply connected the lines into things like Zs and snakes. Among the fanciful creations for Orion: a telescope (my favorite!), a kangaroo, a cow, horse, squirrel.
Nobody saw a hunter with a club and shield of wolfskin. Suprise!
Finally I showed them the Western constellation lines and the artwork of the classical constellations. They loved looking at that, picking things like Monoceros the unicorn or Draco the dragon.
I got some great questions. Two siblings, the children of an ornithologist, are quite the scientists. They peppered me with good, hard questions.
“How are stars born?”
“Don’t stars explode when they die?”
And my favorite:
“How do you know that those constellations are really those things?” (Pointing to the fanciful art overlaying the star field.)
They’re not. They’re just made up.
I showed them some of the other star cultures Stellarium has: Korean, Chinese, Navajo. All very different, none wrong, none right. Just systems of naming and organization. I think they got that, which was my goal.
There’s time enough to learn about the International Astronomical Union and standards and Western hegemony later. For now they should look up and make their own sense of it all, like they do with clouds.