Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
May 18, 2012
In Mad Men’s “seven Twenty Three” episode, Don Draper’s kids get inside a cardboard camera obscura to watch a solar eclipse with their teacher. Would today’s kids make the same box to watch a solar eclipse or is there a better way? As luck would have it, we’ll be witnessing a partial solar eclipse in the Bay Area on Sunday May 20. The annular solar eclipse will start at 5.15pm, peak around 6.30pm and end around 7.40pm. I talked with Jonathan Braidman, instructor and astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center to get a few tips to watch the solar eclipse safely and get kids excited about a rare event.
In the US, the last one was in 1994. The next one will be in 2023. Believe me, you’ll want to be outside for such an event. That movie theater date can wait.
Explaining a Solar Eclipse
Kids need to understand what happens to realize how extraordinary a solar eclipse is. Basically, it will be night during the day and that’s pretty awesome. A solar eclipse happens when the moon gets between the Earth and the sun, therefore blocking the sun from our view. An annular solar eclipse (that’s the one on Sunday) is when the Moon is close to the farthest point of its orbit, thereby obscuring only part of the Sun during the eclipse because its apparent diameter is smaller than the Sun’s. We’re talking relative here, you know that right?
Now, since the Earth is round (unless you live in Lancaster and still believe that the Earth is flat), people experience the eclipse differently depending on where they live on the planet. We are lucky that in the Bay Area, we’ll see a partial solar eclipse on Sunday in the shape of a C or a crescent. “The cool thing is, as the moon moves past the sun, the crescent will rotate clockwise until it’s facing west,” explains Jonathan Braidman. To help visualize the concept, I found this animated video that shows two children trying to understand what’s going on during a lunar or solar eclipse. It’s generic (no annular/ring of fire) but simple and to the point:
Now on to crafts of astronomic proportions! Here are a few things you can do with the kids.
Make a Solar Eclipse Model at Home
Use props! You can reproduce a solar eclipse at home and shine some light on the subject with different sized balls, items you probably already have in your cupboards. I created this example of a solar eclipse simulation based on various solar eclipse models but you can use your imagination and make up your own version. In my world, this is what you’ll need:
Build a Pinhole Camera
As you’ve probably heard, watching the sun during a solar eclipse is as dangerous as watching the sun without the solar eclipse. Meaning, DON’T DO IT. Kids can’t look directly at the sun but they can create a pinhole camera to look at a reflection of the sun on a harmless piece of white paper. Here are two fun crafts to create your own solar eclipse viewing camera:
Create a Solar Eclipse Family Movie
According to Space on msnbc.com, here are the steps for optimal solar eclipse photography and future bragging rights. These guys are pros so you’ll have to tailor the advice to your photo equipment and capabilities.
What I suggest goes beyond the photo session. Once you have a bunch of solar eclipse photographs, you can stitch the shots together to create a video of the experience and have your child narrate what it was like. For narrated slideshows, you can use Windows Movie Maker or Fotobabble. If you prefer a music video, check out Animoto and use the Star Wars themes if they have them!
Now if you have any brilliant ideas, please add them in the comments. I’d love to hear how other parents get their kids interested in astronomy!