Total solar eclipse and other awe-inspiring celestial activities

When you’re looking up at the solar eclipse on August 21 (wearing appropriate eye protection, of course), you might also be wondering: What else is out there? Black holes, dark energy, life forms? Are we really alone in the universe?

This is one of the great unanswered questions for scientists, which is why it’s in the 125th anniversary issue of Science dedicated to the topic of “What Don’t We Know” — a list of questions scientists still puzzle over.

At the Concord Consortium, we were fascinated by these questions, and it got us thinking … how can we generate that kind of curiosity and excitement among students, especially those who see science as dry facts and a long list of crazy vocabulary words like azimuth and hypernova and transneptunians?

The goal of our High-Adventure Science project is aimed at just that — engaging students in the same way scientists approach unanswered questions.

In collaboration with National Geographic Education, we’ve developed six week-long units for middle and high school students on compelling, unanswered questions, including “Is there life in space?

This free online investigation helps students see how scientists use modern tools to locate planets around distant stars and explore the probability of finding extraterrestrial life. The curriculum incorporates dynamic computer models, including planet hunting models and Molecular Workbench models, real-world data, and and a video about planet hunters. What could be more cool?

As students search for habitable places beyond Earth, they hunt for planets using a model to explore how the brightness of a star changes over time as a planet orbits around it. This is known as the transit method. Students learn how the size of the planet and the angle of the orbit relative to the viewer each play a role in the light intensity that reaches Earth. This is similar to the solar eclipse when the moon will block the light of the sun as it transits between the sun and Earth.

Planet hunting model. Explore how combining data from the velocity of a star and the light intensity of a star can be used to find planets. Adjust the orbital angle (tilt) of the model by clicking in the grid area and dragging, so that you can see star movement in the velocity graph. As the planet passes in front of the star, watch what happens to the light intensity on the light intensity graph.

While the excitement of this eclipse may last just a few minutes (until the next total solar eclipse in North America in 2024), students can use High-Adventure Science to conduct other awe-inspiring celestial investigations, like the search for life in space!