National Astronomy Day: Bringing the Universe to Your Students

Article excerpt


How do you help students realize their place in the universe? How do you teach the relationship among the Earth, Moon, stars, and galaxies during daylight hours? Most teachers assume that astronomy is a difficult subject to teach in the classroom and that without a planetarium little can be learned. In this article we discuss National Astronomy Day and demonstrate how to successfully bring astronomy to your school.

Background and purpose

In 1973, the Astronomical Association of Northern California set up telescopes on sidewalks in the San Francisco area for the general public to view the Moon and other celestial objects. Since then, National Astronomy Day has become an annual event that has spread around the world with the purpose of "bringing astronomy to the people." National Astronomy Day usually occurs on a Saturday in April or May nearest the time when the Moon is at its first quarter phase so the sky is not completely drowned out by the glare of the Moon. (Visit FactSheet-2010.pdf to determine the yearly date.) For those who have never looked through a telescope or seen the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter, National Astronomy Day provides an opportunity to view the splendor of the night sky and experience the heavens through astronomy-related activities.


Our Astronomy Day celebration consisted of 24 stations set up at our middle school. These activities focused on our theme: the Sun, Moon, and planets. Many of our activities came from sources on the internet (see Figure 1 and Resources). We held the day portion of our event on a Saturday from 2 until 5:30 p.m. and then hosted a telescope viewing session in the evening from 8 to 10:30 p.m. The event was free and open to the general public.


Afternoon activities were established along the corridors and outside of our school. A small auditorium was used for astronomy-related videos and a comet-making demonstration. A portion of our library and its computers was reserved for visitors wanting to test their astronomy knowledge and to view 3-D images of the solar system. The twinkling star of our event was a cardboard planetarium (Figure 2) set up in the school cafeteria (see Rios 2003 in Resources for additional information on how to build a planetarium).

Our event was staffed by 12 volunteer teachers and parents and 6 eighth-grade students. Other possible volunteers include interested high school students or students from science departments at area colleges. Our local adult astronomy club, which has education outreach to the public as its mission, was happy to participate. To find an astronomy club in your area, visit NASA's Night Sky Network (see Resources).

Consult with your principal and facilities manager to let them know what you are doing and how many people you expect. They should be able to advise you on fire codes and safety considerations. Our school district provided a janitor on-site during the event in case of any building emergency.

We used milk crates to organize and store the materials for each station. Folders at each station included background information and directions for that station's activity. Because our volunteers had little or no astronomy knowledge or experience, our folders and directions were designed so that the assigned volunteer could take the folder, read the background information, and become well versed in the presentation in a short amount of time.

Because of the size and nature of our event, we started planning in January, and began organizing our crates one month before the event--writing the directions for an activity, researching and writing up quality background information about the topic, and then gathering the needed materials (we planned for 100 people at each station). I stored the milk crates outside of my classroom with a colorful label on the front of each one. …