Saturday, March 19, 2011

Connecting the Dots

Over the past 100 years or so, stars seem to have disappeared from daily life. Our ancestors didn’t take the stars for granted; for them, the night sky often served as compass, clock, calendar, and a rich source of inspiration for tales of mystery and wonder. Skyscrapers and light pollution have dimmed the brilliance of the night sky for many of us in the 21st century, but for those who happen to stop for a bit and look upward, the sky’s glittering patterns are still there for the gazing.

The constellations that appear nightly in our skies are the same ones that our ancestors have viewed for millions of years. Constellations are groups of stars that appear to form patterns in the sky, and that can be perceived as figures or designs. In an attempt to better understand the vast world around them, ancient civilizations named and assigned stories to the constellations, many of which are still noted today. Many of the constellations’ names and stories are derived from classical mythology, which makes them a wonderful topic for teaching across the curriculum. Science classes, of course, can easily incorporate the study of constellations into a regular astronomy unit. English and language arts classes can take advantage of students’ enduring love of the Percy Jackson series to learn more about the stories behind the constellations, and perhaps create their own constellation myths. Social studies classes can discuss the importance of constellations to civilizations throughout history, and how various cultures assigned different interpretations to the same star or groups of stars, and which reflected their cultural beliefs and customs.

The viewing of constellations requires no special equipment, just a swath of night sky, a marked star map or guide, and some patience. If cloudy skies or light pollution obscure your night viewing, online alternatives are available and great tools for classroom use. At this point, the only constellation that I can reliably identify is Orion, the Hunter, but I’ve vowed to learn at least several more by the end of summer. Finding constellations can be a remarkably powerful experience, and a way to remind ourselves that despite our frenzied and full lives, we’re still all part of something much larger and grander than ourselves.

This week, I’m featuring three resources on constellations for different grade ranges, and will be highlighting many more resources on this topic throughout the week on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Please be sure to join us.

Glowing Constellations
Subjects: Art, Astronomy, Language Arts
Grade: K-3
Students choose and research a constellation, then use pictures to help design an accurate bas-relief replica of the constellation. This lesson was produced by Crayola, maker of art supplies. Crayola also offers lesson plans, an online certificate maker, and other resources for educators.

Subjects: Mythology, Astronomy
Grade: 3-8
In this lesson, students will "connect the dots" to form constellations from stars, recognize some famous constellations and the myths behind them, and compare their perspectives to the perspectives of other students and ancient peoples. This lesson is offered by the Sloan Digital Sky Server (SDSS), a project that uses current data to make a map of a large part of the universe. In addition to offering data for astronomers, SDSS also offers educational resources and games for teachers and students.

~Joann's Picks - 3/18/2011~

Constellations in Science and Mythology
Subjects: Art, Writing, Astronomy
Grade: 9-12
This project requires students to research constellations and produce illustrated books suitable for third to fifth grade readers. The books must include the story and mythology behind the constellation, information about the two brightest stars in the constellation, and Messier objects found in the constellation. This lesson was created by Debbie Scheinberg, a high school science teacher at Cherokee High School South in Marlton, New Jersey.


  1. I really like how you incorporate all of the subjects into the constellation lesson. It is so important for education to inter-connected. I feel that students have a better understanding of subject matter when it is applied to all of the subjects they are learning.

  2. Exactly! Students often don't see how topics really *are* interrelated unless we make a conscious effort to show them. In time, they start to make the connections themselves, but that comes with maturity and consistent practice in thinking about/questioning how certain topics affect other areas. Then those neural pathways and connections start popping, and lightbulbs start going off over their heads. I'm a big believer in educational cross-pollination!

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