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Star Hopping

Star Gazers illustration

Originally appears in the Winter 2015 issue

GET THAT TELESCOPE out of your classroom— NOW! What is that star chart doing in your students’ hands?—Collect them for later. Ooooh dear, that was a close one! You almost destroyed the best opportunity for students to learn and enjoy the night sky in a simple and pleasurable way. The best way to look at the night sky can be taught in a similar manner as helping move your students into a new neighborhood. When a person moves to a new location, they quickly learn where their home is, the location of the grocery store and the route to work. That is all. Similarly, this article will teach the night sky’s most basic routes, and these simple skills may increase you and your students’ spatial reasoning ability, comfort in natural environments, observation skills, awareness of seasonal variations, and human culture. Your students will learn about the highway through the sky called the ecliptic and several important locations in both the winter and summer skies. You do not need a telescope or a star chart. Once your students learn these simple pleasurable observation skills, they can use their basic knowledge of the night sky to take this new interest in astronomy in any direction they choose.

Keep it Simple, at Least at First

Telescopes and even star charts (called planispheres by sophisticates) are not a good first step toward learning the night sky. It is also a myth that you need to be in a pristine natural area with a dark sky to enjoy astronomy. To get started, your students will learn two easy-to-find constellations which will then point them to less obvious stars and constellations. Star hopping will allow budding astronomers to find the ecliptic, that great super highway in the sky, which you can follow through the seasons to find the 12 constellations of the zodiac. The ecliptic will also help confirm whether you are seeing a planet. The overwhelming night sky, with thousands of stars visible to the naked eye, is about to become very simple.

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Robert D. Bixler is an associate professor of Parks and Conservation Management at Clemson University. He teaches heritage interpretation methods to educators
wanting to work in non-formal educational settings.
J. Joy James is an associate professor at Appalachian State University. She works with parks and other agencies in providing feld trips for teachers and students to parks and conservation areas.