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Inquiry 4: How Can I Learn More About Eclipses?

The moon revolves around the Earth and the Earth and moon revolve around the sun. As this occurs, some of the sun's light is blocked by the moon's shadow or by the Earth's shadow. When the Earth's shadow falls upon the moon, a lunar eclipse occurs; conversely, when the moon's shadow falls upon the Earth, a solar eclipse occurs. One way to demonstrate a solar eclipse would be to use a wall clock or other large circular object and a coin or other small circular object. If the clock is the Earth and the coin is the moon, you can position them so that the coin eclipses the clock.

Communication - Encourage students to design a way to demonstrate both solar and lunar eclipses to someone who does not understand them. Students should be able to discuss shadows, light, and clarity of images that are produced when there is a bright light source, like the sun. Challenge students to use sunlight to provide the distinct shadows they need, and have them present and explain their models to the class.

Cultural Interpretations - People from many cultures have developed myths and legends about eclipses. Some have believed that an eclipse is a sign of impending natural disaster, such as a flood or an earthquake. Others thought that an eclipse foretold the death or downfall of a ruler. The Chinese once believed that an eclipse of the sun occurred because a dragon was eating the sun. As a result, the Chinese would produce great noise such as drumming and banging on pans to frighten the dragon away and to bring back the sunlight.

Have students research myths or legends about eclipses from other cultures. There are, for instance, many Native American myths and legends that are based on solar and lunar eclipses. Sharing the Kalispel story "How Coyote Was the Moon," might be a good way to get students talking about the moon and what it looks like. Also, Keepers of the Earth by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac (ISBN 1555910270) is an excellent source of Native American myths and legends that enhance classroom science. Science activities accompany each of the stories.

Role Play - Have students design a skit or play that illustrates various cultural beliefs about eclipses. These skits could be performed for the rest of the class as they study how different cultures interpret the meaning of eclipses.

Medical Research - Whenever a solar eclipse occurs, we are warned by the media and the medical community not to look directly at the sun. While looking directly at the sun is never a good idea, it is particularly harmful during a solar eclipse. Encourage students to find out why this is true. They should list reasons why the sun's rays are particularly concentrated, describe cases of actual damage to the eye caused by looking at the sun, and list sources for their information. Then, they could design a way to present this information to a larger audience: the school, other classes, or the general public.

History - It is believed that Christopher Columbus used his knowledge of solar eclipses to impress West Indian natives. Because he knew when an eclipse was to occur, he was able to use the natural event to solidify his power over the native population. Discuss with students the quote "knowledge is power" and have students brainstorm and research other instances where knowledge of the natural world translates into power for those who "own" the knowledge.

Reading - Read to the students A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (ISBN 0553211439). This is a wonderful story of a man who travels back to the time of King Arthur and must frequently outsmart Merlin. It includes an episode in which he uses the knowledge of when a solar eclipse occurred to save his own life.

Writing - Obtain an almanac and provide students with a list of dates when solar eclipses occurred. Have them choose a date and then write a story in which the solar eclipse plays an important part. Use A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as a guide.

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