Monday's total solar eclipse will be a big event that could be an equally big opportunity to engage students with science. But smaller hands-on activities can cast the same effect.
Though Mid-Missouri is now only a day away from the eclipse's much-anticipated arrival, Jefferson City High School science teacher Rick Hirst said he's been talking up the coming show in the sky for a lot longer — 10 years.
He's co-sponsor of JCHS's astronomy club with fellow high school science teacher David Ganey. The eclipse has been an event in the gaze of his club members and classroom students, including biology students.
Animals like birds and insects have behavioral responses to day versus night and the transitions between. "It's going to be a neat experience to see in the middle of the day," Hirst said.
Jefferson City Public Schools obtained enough solar eclipse-viewing glasses for all of its students and staff. A printed update to the district's Board of Education included in last week's meeting packet said more than 10,000 pairs of glasses had been distributed to the district's buildings by Friday.
Hirst thinks the eclipse will be a "great draw for science in general," and specifically, he anticipates it will be "a great introduction to astronomy as a science." He foresees it as a moment when a student can think, "This is really cool; what else is there in astronomy to learn about?"
It's been natural, therefore, for astronomy to be tied to the eclipse in classroom lessons, especially over the past year, he said. He's used hula hoops to demonstrate the "neat coincidence" that is an eclipse, when the off-set orbits of Earth around the sun and the moon align at the right time.
The astronomy club has an information booth set up downtown outside the Capitol on Sunday, and Hirst said students will be making the same hula hoop demonstration for smaller children.
It's the kind of community outreach the club likes to do. While the club didn't get to do it last school year, students have gone to Lewis and Clark Middle School, Thorpe Gordon Elementary School and local preschool programs with solar telescopes to show younger students how to observe the sun during the day, Hirst said.
"We hand pick some astronomy club kids, and they give a little presentation on the sun" — how big it is and what it's made of, he said. Then, "we'll have the astronomy kids take the kids outside" and show them how to use a solar telescope and what to look for, like solar flares and sunspots.
Hirst has been a science teacher at JCHS since 1997, and over all that time, he hasn't seen a difference in keeping students engaged when it comes to science lessons, he said. Students are more device-driven today, but he said that means teachers just have to adjust their styles a bit.
Even students who aren't science-oriented in their interests can enjoy and engage with hands-on activities, he said, and that's not exclusive to elementary students.
On the first day of astronomy class every year, rather than immediately tackling the same set of paperwork as in most classes, he has students make "comets" using dry ice. The solidified carbon dioxide that makes up dry ice sublimates directly into a vapor at room temperature — or any temperature above minus 109 Fahrenheit — just like a real comet's solid mix of frozen water, rock, dust and frozen gases vaporizes into its signature tail when heated by the sun in space.
"As long as you can kind of do some neat thing with kids, you can get them hooked and build on that throughout the year," Hirst said.
When it comes to astronomy club, they try to organize a sky-gazing night at least once in the fall and then again in the spring in "star parties."
"We'll do more depending if anything else is going on," he said.
Astronomy club membership has been growing; last year it had about 40 members. Hirst anticipates Monday's celestial show will be an easy selling point in the future: "Remember the eclipse?"
That's exactly the question Blair Oaks Middle School will be asking its students only moments after the event.
"'What did you just experience at totality?'" middle school Principal Don Jeffries said of the question that will be put forth to students, incorporating an English element into the science proceedings of collecting data for NASA.
"We are going to have our students be collecting data as far as light-sensitivity and temperature" for NASA's Citizen Science program, Jeffries said.
Other local students and scientists also will be collecting some data Monday. A team from the University of Missouri led by Neil Fox planned to distribute about 60 temperature units to 4-H students in Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole and Randolph counties.
Fox is an associate professor of atmospheric science at MU. "We will be using it; we'll be expecting it to be very good and exciting data" about temperature fluctuations during the eclipse to create a map of the changes, he said.
Given the time of day and year of the eclipse, he's expecting a bigger temperature change during an eclipse than anyone else has ever observed. Beyond the data, though, he added the project is intended to encourage participation in science activities, especially among school-age children.
The temperature-recording units themselves are iButton devices, about the size of a bottle cap, glued into homemade solar radiation shields made of cardboard, foil and zip ties to shade the sensor and ensure accurate readings.
MU's Patrick Market also has a team that will launch helium-filled weather balloons during the eclipse from local sites including Jefferson City. Market is a professor of atmospheric science, and the balloons will measure temperature, wind speed and direction, and solar radiation more than a mile above the ground.
The team hopes to replicate results from a similar experiment of British scientists during a 2015 eclipse. Loren White, a collaborating researcher from Jackson State University in Mississippi, will be working with the MU team to test a smaller weather balloon. The smaller balloon will have a sensor inside a Styrofoam cup that will release and drift back to the ground.
Jeffries said there's not often an event like the eclipse in which students can actively incorporate scientific inquiry. He admitted, though, that staff members don't want students to miss watching the show while collecting observations; he wasn't sure how much data students would actually collect because "we want them to enjoy that moment."
Blair Oaks R-2's Superintendent Jim Jones said the district had also ordered enough solar-viewing safety glasses for all of its students, faculty and staff and might have a few left over for guests.
Jeffires said students will be asked to draw what they see through their glasses 20 minutes before totality, 10 minutes before, 10 minutes after and 20 minutes after the eclipse.
He said safety is key, and there will be a practice totality drill Monday morning for the district's students to practice putting on, wearing and taking off their glasses before they head out to the Falcon Athletic Complex in the afternoon.
Permission forms were required for participation in eclipse-viewing, and Jones said most were filled out at registration.
Amy Berendzen, Jefferson City Public Schools director of community relations, said students in the district received an opt-out form for eclipse viewing. The form was emailed to families in June and again about two weeks before the eclipse, Berendzen said.
A printed update to the board by Lorie Rost, director of elementary education, said alternate plans for eclipse viewing will be available via computer and Smartboard at each elementary school.
JCHS science teacher David Ganey said while it's a building-by-building process, all students in the district will have received safety training with their glasses by the time of the eclipse. Ganey and Hirst were the point-men of the district's eclipse planning.
The Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City also had a permission form for student eclipse viewing. Sister Julie Brandt, the diocese's associate superintendent of schools, said diocesan students also will have received safe-viewing instruction before the eclipse from building staff at each school.
St. Peter Interparish School on Broadway Street will not be in session on the day of the eclipse.