Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Old School Planets Lesson

Did you know that the infamous pirate Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach?

That is all I have to say about that.

On to a lesson.

So I’m going with a hybrid physics style this fall. Half astronomy, half modeling. I’m going to open with a proportional reasoning exercise. This was a mathematical skill/reasoning ability identified by the faculty at Iowa State University (normally known for their mutations of corn, but in this case, physics). My biggest flaw as a teacher is glossing over the simple stuff and allowing the SBG machinery to show me what’s been missed. So, proportional reasoning it is:

I get them a yoga ball (radius = 1m). This is the Sun, I say. It is currently August 15th, 23:00, I say, and our classroom happens to be the center of the solar system.

Go find the planets, and use this website; up–on the picture–is North in our town.

This lesson has a very classic feel to it. The teacher does a lot of up front work (hiding wooden stakes with planet pictures on them), and the students are left with a contrived tasks, interesting though it is. There’s a lot of slick student questioning that I’m glossing over, but, honestly, I just like doing this kind of thing.

I hid the planets. By my calculations, with a 1-meter Sun, you get kilometer distances for the outer planets (not including pluto, I don’t say that though, it’s funnier if they go looking; hell, I didn’t even capitalize it.)

That puts students, during lunch time usually, almost klicks away traveling on some silly vector they may or may not have figured correctly. I ignore eccentricity, for now, and just use mean orbital distance. Invariably, students google such vocab words, and we get a standing list of questions that then pretty much motivates the rest of the semester.

Happy planet hunting, literally.

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Shawn Cornally • August 15, 2011

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