The Great American Solar Eclipse

Kim Moldofsky is the publisher of The Maker Mom and STEM Kids Chicago.

The Great American Solar Eclipse is headed our way! By now you’ve surely highlighted the big day, August 21, 2017, on your calendar. Worldwide, eclipses aren’t uncommon. But it’s a rare event to have one sweep across the continental United States. The totality, the area in which the sun is totally blocked as the moon crosses its path, is expected to be about 70 miles wide and will be observed from Oregon to South Carolina.

Traveling to the Totality

Most Americans live within a day’s drive of the path of totality. There’s a good chance that you and your students can directly observe this solar phenomenon for yourselves. It’s exciting, right? The downside of the totality’s accessibility is that traffic en route to the totality could be a nightmare. The upside? There’s an app for that!

I chuckled when a friend posted on Facebook that we should prepare for the eclipse as though preparing for a snowstorm. But it’s no joke. If you plan to travel near the totality, keep your gas tank full and your schedule light. Make sure you have a few provisions, like water and snacks, and a fully charged phone with you. I’ll stop short of recommending astronaut diapers, but know that delays and traffic snarls will be common. This article takes a deep dive into potential eclipse-related congestion.

If you think I sound alarmist, try booking a hotel or campground near the totality.

Given the potential hassle, is it worth heading to the area of totality? From what I hear, yes, it is. It’s one thing to see the sky dim outside the main eclipse zone, but quite another to see the spectacular corona, the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun, and experience the darkness and silence as the moon moves across the glowing orb. Before you decide where to spend your time, check out how the eclipse with play out in your area with this simulator. Just type in the name of your town and your state to get a sense of what will happen.

Eclipse Art

Looking to commemorate the event in your classroom? NASA has a wide variety of posters that you can download for free. Their complimentary collection includes artist Tyler Nordgren’s colorful Great American Eclipse poster. Nordgren also has a collection of state eclipse posters on his website. I’m a fan of his colorful retro-style artwork and bought his Devil's Tower National Monument poster on my recent trip out west.

If your classroom walls are already full, consider Total Eclipse of the Sun postage stamps. These small 49-cent stamps make inexpensive souvenirs. They are the first stamps printed with thermochromatic ink. Meaning that the design changes from the dark sun and its corona to a light image of the moon when heated by a human touch. They can also be used to mail letters, which if your students are anything like my kids, is its own kind of novelty in the digital age.

Wait. What?

Even young kids know that the sun and moon rise in the east and set in the west. So why will the eclipse move across the country from west to east? The Washington Post answers this as part of their Dear Science series with the help from a NASA scientist. (Hint: it involves the moon moving faster than the sun.)

Don't Just Be a Passive Observer

You can do more than simply watch the eclipse. There are several worthwhile citizen science projects you can contribute to during this special event.

Citizen Science with NASA

NASA has a great list of eclipse-related citizen science, some of which are appropriate for middle school students. For example, the GLOBE Observer project which seeks input on winds, clouds, and temperature, is open to people even if they are outside of the area of totality. 

Citizen Cinema

Anyone with a smartphone can participate in an unprecedented recording project-- the Eclipse Megamovie. This project will edit together thousands of images taken along the path of the eclipse for a movie like no other. The final product will be more than a scientific cinematic delight, it will provide a new tool to help scientists study the sun’s corona.

Although the Great American Eclipse feels like a once in a lifetime event, there’s going to be a repeat in just seven years! On April 8, 2024, darkness will once again briefly sweep our land, only this time the totality will run from Texas to Maine. So save your eclipse safety glasses and book your hotel room now.