What activities can students do with astronomy apart from stargazing?
August 21, 2015 2:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to think of hands-on things that both kids and adults might like doing with astronomy apart from stargazing.

These are the non-stargazing projects I've thought of. There has to be tons more. Let me know what others you can think of, please:
  • Collect meteorites in your backyard: Meteoroids ranging from sand-grain to football-sized are constantly falling on Earth--about 100 tons a day. Most meteorites will react to magnets, so setting out a collection plate to sit undisturbed for a stretch of time will collect some meteorites (along with a bunch of Earth detritus). Magnetic particles can be separated from the rest with a magnet and examined to find out if they're really meteorites. Even if you don't know which ones are meteorites and which ones aren't, chances are at least some of these particles are tiny meteorites.
  • Going to the pool and doing a belly flop is surprisingly similar to a meteor burning up in the atmosphere. If a body slams into a fluid with enough speed, you witness a dramatic reaction that isn't what you normally see when bodies move through fluids at slower speeds.
  • Most countries of the world have areas where the K-T boundary (a remnant of the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs) is either exposed or hidden underfoot. Looking at a naturally or artificially exposed sample of the K-T boundary is, to me, a stunning reminder that the heavens are above us AND below.
  • A TV remote's infrared beam, which is normally invisible, can be seen by looking at it with a digital camera. This is an illustration of how much of the electromagnetic spectrum we can't see, and the usefulness of X-Ray telescopes and the like. There's so much out there to be seen, and we normally only see a tiny fraction of it.
What else? I'd love to hear what the Metafilter community has to say.
posted by Sleeper to Education (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Celestial navigation
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:29 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Simulate orbital mechanics using a bed sheet, a parachute, or better still, a piece of spandex.
posted by pipeski at 2:30 PM on August 21, 2015

hand-made sun dials/clocks.. (at the bare minimum, stick a rod in the ground, measure how it's shadow moves throughout the day)
posted by k5.user at 2:30 PM on August 21, 2015

History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy: Lots of hands-on exercises for exploring astronomical phenomena.
posted by Atrahasis at 2:33 PM on August 21, 2015

Maybe you would consider participation in SETI to count? As I understand it, people can lend use of a portion of their computer for this distributed computing project. I have never done it and it is actually Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, not stars per se.

The other thing that comes to mind is that a few places have actual scale models of our solar system. What you see in books in really crazy inaccurate. If you tried to use a scale for showing it in a book, you would need some ridiculously large fold-out for it. But some places have scale models across things like several city blocks. I have heard there is one in Australia and it lists something as being in England -- something not in our solar system -- to give an idea of scale for the universe.
posted by Michele in California at 2:35 PM on August 21, 2015

When I taught a summer kids science class (ages 8-12ish), we put white mushrooms on sticks and then explored the phases of the Moon: the Sun was a lamp in the corner of a dark room, each kid's head was an Earth, and the mushroom (held by the kid, circling the "Earth") was the Moon.

Phases of the moon are not understood by most adults (See 2:50, e.g.), so it's good to catch 'em early! You can then move outward to discuss the structure of the solar system and the galaxy, etc.
posted by pjenks at 2:36 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Along those lines, figure out the sun's position by looking at the moon phase and position. Then you can have a rough way to tell what time of night it is (when the moon is up). The recent Cinderella movie had the full moon low in the sky at midnight, which if you think about where the sun is, is impossible.

Relate the sun position to latitude. On the equinoxes, the noon sun will be at an elevation equal to your colatitude (90 degrees minus your latitude).
posted by tracer at 2:46 PM on August 21, 2015

Build a 3D model of a constellation.
posted by Shanda at 2:48 PM on August 21, 2015

Print up a big section of sky with the stars/galaxies labeled. (if this is a class, divide it into sections and a class into groups). Invite the kids to draw a constellation, and do research on the celestial objects in them. Have them each pick one of the objects and do a little report on it, and present their constellation. Then place their constellation in a place in a classroom that corresponds to where it is in the nighttime sky, and move it once a week.

Alternatively, instead of constellations, have them go to a site with astronomy images, pick a cool one each, and do much the same.

Alternatively, have them pick an exo planet, and draw possible aliens for it, based on the planet's gravity, size, how close it is to the sun, if it's gaseous or not, etc.
posted by gryftir at 3:17 PM on August 21, 2015

My first one would be sundials, but it was taken already, above!

Telescope building. This requires a budget, and you can build a telescope from a mix of purchased parts and homemade parts (like a home-ground mirror, which can take a number of weeks to make) or all-bought.

Or you could make it an optics lesson. Not astronomy per se, but it's one of the fundamentals of observational astronomy-- knowing how lenses work gives one the necessary foundation to use lenses for gaining true information.

A bit away from astronomy as such, but maybe KerbalEDU, the Classroom edition of Kerbal Space Program, for some safe clean fun with rockets, real physics, and little green men and women. It goes well with orbital lessons.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:48 PM on August 21, 2015

Citizen science! Check out Zooniverse, where you look at real data that possibly no human has ever looked at before, and help astronomers analyze the data—for real.
posted by BrashTech at 3:52 PM on August 21, 2015

Distance-scale model of the solar system. Any size-scale model you build is going to have invisibly small or uncomfortably huge bodes in it, but with 10 balls or other markers, plus maybe a drive to a nearby town to visit Proxima Centauri, you can show how big is big.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:05 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Gravity Visualized looks like a fun activity.

Elite: Dangerous is a spaceship simulator game made by astronomers and contains a scientifically accurate simulation of the entire Milky Way galaxy, (which thus includes every star, nebula, etc known to science. That means any star you can find in the real-world sky, you can travel to in the game and it will be accurate to what is known about it.) Many players equip their ships for long-range exploration and simply set off to explore the galaxy and see the sights.

Landscape Astrophotography is fun and it's not too difficult to create a photo that wows people.

Everyone gets to build their own spectroscope? (This probably only requires a few dollars of materials for a small group of people) then everyone can use their new instruments to reveal the fingerprints of nearby light-sources, and so learn how we know that galaxies are genuinely red-shifted, and how that means the universe is expanding.

(If "astronomy" also includes space travel, then that opens up a whole lot too, eg creating your own biosphere/ecosphere in a big jar, etc.)
posted by anonymisc at 5:13 PM on August 21, 2015

For younger kids or the more artistically inclined, they could make their own constellations from star maps and/or create legends about them. You could have them identify the stars and planets within their constellation creations to add knowledge into the project.
posted by shortyJBot at 6:08 PM on August 21, 2015

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