Earth and Space Science Classes 6 and 7: Recap of astronomy, and on to Earth science/Weather

My whole family were ill for about a week so I cancelled one Friday’s class and rescheduled to the next Thursday for those who could make it. We did a whistle-stop tour through the history of astronomy by looking at key figures and placing them on a timeline. The children didn’t seem to have heard of many of the characters so that would be an area worth exploring more, if they were interested. I also introduced a few women astronomers and those from cultures other than the Euro-centric/’Western’ developed countries that tend to be mentioned in these timelines.

Hypatia of Alexandria was the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexondricus. She worked in the famed Library at Alexandria and became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria. She used astrolabes to locate and track the movement of the stars, and produced a detailed table of her observations. Sailors used the astrolabe and her tables for navigation for the next 1200 years. We have no pictures of Hypatia but this is a picture in the British Museum showing an Egyptian woman from around the fourth century BC.
Hypatia of Alexandria was the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexondricus. She worked in the famed Library at Alexandria and became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria. She used astrolabes to locate and track the movement of the stars, and produced a detailed table of her observations. Sailors used the astrolabe and her tables for navigation for the next 1200 years. We have no pictures of Hypatia but this is a picture in the British Museum showing an Egyptian woman from around the fourth century BC.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first to directly observe and precisely analyse pulsars, while a postgraduate student in Cambridge. The Nobel Prize for this discovery was given to her male supervisor and one of his male colleagues, which outraged many prominent astronomers at the time. The photo shows her (right) at the launch of the International Year of Astronomy in Paris, 2009. By Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was an Indian-American astrophysicist born in Lahore who worked in many areas and received the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for his mathematical theory of black holes. By Biswarup Ganguly [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
After trying out my digital thermometer and hygrometer (a device which measures humidity), we went into my garden to peer at my neighbour’s handy little weather station with anemometer, wind vane, rain gauge and what looks like a solar cell (perhaps for recording hours of sunlight). We had a pretty informal discussion about what meteorological measurements we could make and how they might be useful, particularly focussing on three situations: (a) tornado prediction; (b) crops susceptible to fungal diseases; (c) bush fires.

We then set to making our own anemometers (which measure windspeed). These are not too tricky to make, although younger children might prefer making paper windmills (pinwheels) instead (but you don’t really need a hammer to stick the pin into the wooden skewer or dowel).

Even with a home-made anemometer you can make measurements of windspeed. This is explained in the video below:

In the next class, the younger children rearranged some cards to make a diagram of the water cycle.

Then we talked about changes to the Earth’s Surface – rapid or slow, and natural or caused by humans. I had printed out various situations in which geographical features change, many of them showing floods or drought. We discussed why water was essential for life, and briefly touched on weathering and erosion.

The sandy bank of the Snowy River just north of Suggan Buggan, Victoria. Before the river was dammed upstream the sandy area would have been completely under water. Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Bidgee using CommonsHelper. Original uploader was Smegs07 at en.wikipedia
The sandy bank of the Snowy River just north of Suggan Buggan, Victoria. Before the river was dammed upstream the sandy area would have been completely under water. Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Bidgee using CommonsHelper.
Original uploader was Smegs07 at en.wikipedia

The younger children drew their own diagrams or plans of an imaginary settlement with essential features like water, food, shelter, medical aid etc. While they were drawing I read from the DK book ‘A Life Like Mine’, created in association with Unicef and setting out the Universal Rights of the Child. The children altered their diagrams a little based on whether they had fulfilled certain requirements. I loved the way one child drew a water treatment unit next to the river when she realised it was important that our water supply was clean.

town planning 1

This activity worked fairly well. It was a hit for some children who do not usually enjoy writing, but enjoyed labelling their diagrams. However, some children were not keen on the drawing and I wished I could have planned a more kinaesthetic activity, perhaps a board game or one where they had to construct and place certain key buildings/infrastructure on a 3D landscape.

The water cycle is not in the syllabus for older children. We skipped that part and went straight on to discussing changes to the Earth’s surface with the same pictures as before. I also used some information I prepared a year ago covering features of different types of extreme weather (e.g. cyclones or tornadoes). I supplied the children with photos, diagrams, descriptions of how they form and other parts of information and they had to assign the information into the right rows or columns in a large grid on the floor.

To be honest these activities were not a great hit with the older children, and in both classes I had distractions including my daughter screaming in the background. I would redesign this session if repeating the course.

Further information:

Recap of material from previous classes

Solar System Trading Cards This is simply a card game online, with no cards to print out, although students might be interested in designing their own.

Revision of Astronomy and Space

You can skip straight to the ‘activity’ if you don’t want to read all the revision notes. Be aware that in England and Wales Key Stage 3 covers Year 7 to Year 8.

Advances in Astronomical Thought

Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: some info on Wikipedia and in an ABC article. NASA’s Planet Quest timeline shows key advances in astronomical thought, starting 450 BC. You can have the sound on or off and autoplay on or off

Weather measurement and prediction

Learn about weather instruments and weather forecasting on weatherwiz kids. There’s more about weather forecasting here on exploringweather.com, and about tornado forecasting here, and about observing the weather in Australia here (including information about Aboriginal observations of the seasons). Try this interactive activity. You can skip the anagrams at any point just by clicking on ‘continue’. Disaster Resilience Education (includes interactive game – although my students were not particularly impressed by this one).

Make your own anemometer following the video above or one of these two links: wikihow or US South East Regional Climate Center (pdf).

Water cycle, and uses of water

Printable water cycle or interactive one on three different levels – I’ve linked to the intermediate one but you can quickly change to easy or advanced.

Article about how we use water

Oxfam UK Water Week has videos and other educational resources.

Old Bernie’s Story‘ is an online game about changes to the environment, especially use of water.

Landscape formation

How Uluru was formed

Erosion and weathering

Even if the Twelve Apostles take less than a day to collapse, the processes take years to wear rocks down so that it reaches that point. However research in 2013 in South Africa found that some natural processes can erode rocks instantaneously.

Family board games

You might like to play these games that tie in with this topic:

Survive:Escape from Atlantis!;

Flash Point: Fire Rescue;

In the Year of the Dragon.

Gamers say the first two can be played from ages 8 and up but the third one is recommended for ages 12 and up.

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Catastrophic events

The classes are now over, for this term: we have finished ‘Changes to the Earth’s Surface’, and I am looking forward to hearing people’s feedback.

After a week to take measurements, I asked how everyone’s rain gauges had performed. We used the questions I posted already to prompt discussion. It was good to hear the children’s thoughts about what might have gone wrong and how we could improve the design. Many people had not measured any rainfall over the past week – I assured them that a zero result was still important for many reasons. (If adults are interested in reporting of null or negative results you might like to read a discussion on Nature Network, find out about The Journal of Null Results and read some more discussions on negative results here and here.)

We revisited drought and flooding. I showed some little animations from the UK about three different types of rainfall. I think these are simple but comprehensive. We looked again at the maps of annual rainfall again, from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, that had so baffled the children the previous week. This time we all talked through the key, and looked out for years when there had been loads more rainfall than usual, or far less rainfall. We then watched videos of flooding in 2011 and drought in central Australia (BBC programme from 2008). Some children were a little upset by watching these, but we went on to talk about how people can predict, plan for and cope with these catastrophic events.

After briefly recapping plate tectonics, we covered earthquakes by making seismic waves with slinkys – you can see these explained with simple animations on the BBC Schools website and on some lecture notes from San Diego State University. We talked about how engineers can test structures to see if they will cope with earthquakes. We watched some videos of these ‘shake tables’ and then built structures ourselves with Duplo (TM) and shook the table to see if they would fall down or not. This was a great deal of fun! I think the children particularly enjoyed building structures that they knew would fall down.

Building with DuploDuplo tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The teachengineering.org website goes into shake tables and earthquakes in much more detail if you are interested. There are two lesson plans that look good although I have not tried them out: Earthquake in the Classroom, and Shake it Up!

I read a few passages from ‘The House on the Volcano’ by Virginia Nielsen. We talked a little about how these catastrophic events are explained by pre-scientific communities as being due to supernatural reasons. When relief organisations are trying to help people or to evacuate people from areas at risk, it is important that they take into account people’s beliefs. (For those in NSW, this touches on parts of the syllabus for Human Society and its Environment.)

The House on the Volcano

For cyclones, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis, we started by reading from ‘The Day of the Elephant’, a beautiful picture book about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

The Day of the Elephant

As a challenge, and to find out how much the children already knew about these events, I had prepared paragraphs and pictures of each of these events. These covered:

formation,

what they look like,

how they form,

what damage they do,

how we can predict them

and how we can prepare for them.

I read these out at random, or handed them to the children, and we sorted them into a huge grid on the floor. I think this activity worked well. All the children were engaged, and keen to work out where each piece went. For future classes I may stick them onto backgrounds like a large jigsaw, so a picture is formed when the children have completed the activity.

natural disasters grid

The same session I brought along a home-made ‘vortex cannon’. This is a very fun piece of equipment to make, that shoots a small vortex of air out of the front. We made ours out of plastic milk cartons, one carrier bag, some gaffer tape and some elastic bands. I can’t find the specific instructions I followed, but if you check on YouTube there are many videos of people making and shooting these, some on huge scales.

We also made a ‘tornado in a jar‘ very simply, with water and dishwashing liquid. The children passed this around to each have a go.

On the final week the children gave their presentations. They varied in confidence and it was great to see each child standing up to have a go. I hope all the children and parents felt it was a welcoming and supportive audience listening to them. I loved all of them but wanted to particularly show off the poster that one child made about volcanoes:

volcanoes poster

I had also set up some ‘stations’ to demonstrate a few of the topics we had covered in the classes, so that the children could take their parents round and explain everything to them. The most popular was making the sedimentary rock models disintegrate by pouring water on them (simulating weathering and erosion). I forgot to bring everything, particularly the ‘bones’ from the Xenosmilus activity on Week 1, and I forgot to put out some of the items I had brought along. I apologise if I disappointed anyone.

I think our classes recovered well from the point which was described in my last blog entry. I will devote a future blog post to looking at what I advertised, and seeing if I delivered everything I said I would. I’m sure there are many things I would change when delivering these classes again. In particular, I would spread out the presentations so that there were a few each week for the last three weeks, rather than all in one go. But overall I felt it was a great success.

Next term I will scale back again, and only offer Friday classes in my house. We will be covering materials, the nature of matter and chemistry.