Copernicus Hunts For Teachable Moments

Image credit: Romeo Durscher
Image credit: Romeo Durscher

Copernicus Hunts For Teachable Moments

What is a teachable moment?

In “The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Creating Teachable Moments” (a science education book published earlier this year), Rodger Bybee describes it as the situation where students are “caught by phenomena, events or situations” that bring about “a need to know and increased motivation to learn”. He adds that “the common conception of a teachable moment is that it is random and unplanned”, before asking the big question: “What if teachable moments were not totally random and unplanned?”

This EFL Magazine column (which is based on the idea that 21st-century English is a universal language that, like the universe itself, has no central or ‘special’ point) is named after a 16th-century astronomer. And so this month, in a special “Copernicus” feature, we look at three ways that astronomy can provide EFL students with teachable moments.


(1) Iridium flares

If you told your students to look in a particular part of the sky at a particular time and they saw a bright star appear for just a few seconds, what kind of discussion might that trigger within the classroom…?

Link: “Observing Iridium Flares”


(2) Meteor showers

Shooting stars are relatively easy to observe and great for engaging students. They can also be used to cover a range of language points – here, for example, is a nice cloze activity from Enchanted Learning.

Link: “Meteoroids, Meteors, and Meteorites”

The next big meteor shower comes up next month, when the Geminids peak on the nights of December 13th and 14th 2015.

Link: “Everything you need to know: Geminid meteor shower”


(3) Solar eclipses

When it comes to creating “a need to know and increased motivation to learn”, there are few “phenomena, events, or situations” that can compare to solar eclipses – they are among the most spectacular things in science, and true “teachable moments”.

The next solar eclipse will be on March 9th 2016: it will be visible as a partial eclipse across a large area of Asia and Australia, and as a total eclipse along a narrow ‘path of totality’ running through Indonesia.

Link: “Total Solar Eclipse of 2016 Mar 09”

To make the most of the educational opportunity provided by the eclipse, I’m teaming up with Tadulako University and the airline Garuda Indonesia to run a series of “Global Science and Communication” workshops. Tadulako University is located in the Indonesian city of Palu, which will experience two minutes of totality during the eclipse, and the workshops will be a mixture of science, astronomy and English-language communication skills.

Sessions will also be held in Japan – a key part of the project will be a series online, cross-border collaboration activities between Indonesian and Japanese students. (Note: I’ll be talking more about this next month in an EFL Magazine online teaching summit/webinar.)

“More than 3,000 scientists from around the world will be coming to Palu to observe the eclipse,” estimates Marsetyo Marsetyo, the head of the international office at Tadulako University. “For two minutes on the morning of March 9th, Palu will be the centre of the scientific world. So this really is a golden opportunity for our students to think about global communication and science.”

The airline Garuda Indonesia is sponsoring the workshops as part of its community development programme. “Education is a key part of our commitment to corporate social responsibility,” says Fikdanel Thaufik, the the company’s vice-president for Japan, Korea and the US. “We are delighted to be supporting this project, which will build bridges between students in Indonesia and Japan, and help students to become more effective global citizens.”

Link: “Global Communication and Science” workshops


Important safety note

NEVER observe a partial eclipse with the naked eye. (Even if the sun is 99 per cent covered by the moon, the remaining crescent is extremely bright and can cause permanent damage to the eye. The only time it is safe to view an eclipse with the naked eye is during the few short minutes or seconds of totality during a total eclipse.)

There are two main ways to safely observe a partial eclipse. The first is by projection, which can be done very simply with two pieces of card: make a small hole in one card, and use it to project an upside-down image of the sun onto the other. You can experiment by changing the size of the hole, and the distance between the two pieces of card. NEVER look at the sun directly through the hole.

The second way is to use a specially designed solar filter, such as eclipse glasses or an eclipse viewer. Even when using solar filters, however, NEVER stare at the sun for long periods. NEVER use normal sunglasses, film or smoked glass, and NEVER use solar filters with binoculars or telescopes (unless it is a specialist telescope filter, and is placed on the front, sun-facing end of the instrument).

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