Training: Teachers Level 2

Welcome to our Astronomy Workshop for Teachers - Level 2

This is where you can find all workshop content, including videos, PowerPoint documents, activities to try and resources to explore. 

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I'll start by introducing myself. My name is Julie Bolduc-Duval and I'll be your teacher for the next three weeks. For over 20 years, I've been sharing my passion for making astronomy knowledge more accessible to all. I studied physics, astronomy, and education at the university level and I've worked at different observatories delivering public programs. I also taught college physics and astronomy before founding Discover the Universe in 2011. 

 

I'm here to help you learn astronomy; so don't be afraid to contact me!

HOW TO ASK QUESTIONS

There are a few options for interacting with me and your fellow learners: 

Use this Padlet to ask questions and interact with other workshop participants. 

I will be available for questions and discussions during my office hours in this Zoom room, each Wednesday of the workshop (April 14, 21 and 28) at 4pm EDT (UTC-4) or Montreal time.  

 

You can also contact me directly at julie@ discovertheuniverse.ca or 1-418-332-0428

WORKSHOP CONTENT

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Week 1 - The Solar System

This week we will be looking at different topics related to the Solar System. In our workshop Level 1, we introduce the Solar System in general and the different objects in it (by the way, it's okay if you didn't take it before taking our Level 2 workshop!). Here, we will instead focus on three more specific topics often found in the curriculum:

  • the Sun and solar activity,

  • gravity and orbits, and 

  • impact cratering. 

THE SUN AND SOLAR ACTIVITY

The Sun is our star, and the stars in the night sky are all suns. It is not intuitive at first to understand that they are the same type of object: giant balls of gas that emit a lot of energy and light. Although the Sun is the closest star to us and is much easier to study, there are still many unknowns about how it works, especially in relation to its solar activity cycle. 

To talk about the Sun and solar activity with your students, I invite you to look at our educational module The Solar Cycle, available in our Resources section. It presents an inquiry-based activity that uses a very interesting online tool: HelioViewer.org.

 

This site uses real images of the Sun and allows you to view them in different ways. I had created a demonstration of this site last year. I'm including it here: 

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If you or your students would like to learn more about northern lights, you can watch this episode of Astro at home, a series of astronomy programs we offered during the first school closures when the pandemic started in spring 2020. 

GRAVITY AND ORBITS 

Gravity is a concept that is not always found explicitly in the school curriculum, but which is essential to understand many things in astronomy. We will study it here to understand the orbits of the different objects of the Solar system.

It is not always easy to teach gravity because it's impossible to experience it any other way than being in the Earth's gravitational field. The PhET program at the University of Colorado has created some very useful simulations to teach science, including one that allows us to "play" with gravity. 

If you want to dig deeper in your understanding of gravity, you can watch our webinar "Understanding Gravity" presented a few years ago. You can find it in our Archives

IMPACT CRATERING

Students are usually curious about craters and the risks of impact.  These are also very important topics in scientific research since craters help us "date" the surfaces of objects in the Solar system and understand their history and geological activity. Tracking potentially hazardous asteroids is another very important research field since it could have very important repercussions: the ultimate goal is nothing less than to avoid the end of the world! I cover all this in this video: 

Download the PowerPoint presentation (PDF version).

Website presented: www.spaceweather.com

In the video, I show you the map of craters found on this site, from the University of New Brunswick. You can click on each crater to get information, such as the age of the crater and its size.

Another great Canadian reference is the Impact Earth site from the University of Western Ontario. It has information about each crater and they have lots of general information about impacts. Furthermore, they have developed a great inquiry-based activity about craters. Using flour, cocoa, and various projectiles, students study different parameters that affect the size and shape of craters.

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If you prefer to model craters in a virtual way, here's a demonstration of an interesting simulation website: Impact Calculator

Week 2 - history of the universe

This week, we're talking about the history of the Universe. It's a very rich subject as it covers almost 14 billion years of evolution for the entire universe. Of course, we won't cover everything in detail, but we will see some important milestones: the Big Bang and the first billions of years, the life cycle of stars as well as the formation and history of our Solar system. 

Download the PowerPoint presentation for this entire section (PDF version).

A resource I really like is the Big History Project. They created many resources for teachers to cover the history of the Universe as a whole. While this is meant to be a history class, the first "thresholds" cover astronomical subjects and the entire course is very interesting. Check it out! They also have a general site for non-teachers. 

THE BIG BANG

Let's start at the very beginning, the Big Bang. Honestly, this is not an easy subject to understand and teach. We won't go into detail here, because the deeper you go to understand the Big Bang theory, the more complex it gets. I'm going to give you an overview, and explain how scientists can explain that the Universe was in a much hotter and denser state a very long time ago: 

A great resource to show your students the size of the Universe, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, is the site Quantum to  Cosmos, from the Perimeter Institute in Ontario. It's very well done and you can easily get lost in it for several minutes or even hours! 

EVOLUTION OF STARS

We're going to spend a bit more time on the life cycle of stars since we are directly connected to it: we are made of stardust! 

Let's begin by seeing how stars form: 

EVOLUTION OF STARS

The life of a star depends on its mass. This is the main factor that determines its evolution, and therefore its size, temperature, and luminosity. To see how huge some stars can be, watch this short video from the European Southern Observatory. It is always a hit when I show it to students! 

 

 

Let's look at how stars evolve, starting with Sun-like stars: 

As mentioned in the last video, you can check the presentation on black holes offered during our series Astro at Home. Make sure to check the Astro at Home page as you will find other presentations for a young audience related to this week's topic. 

Another resource I'd like to recommend is the educational guide Figuring Outer Space by the Perimeter Institute. You can download it for free on their website. Many activities are about the life cycle of stars, including one about the Crab Nebula. 

Make sure to check all the educational resources by the Perimeter Institute - they have a great collection!

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To finish the section on the evolution of stars, let's see how this really is a cycle that closes the loop and allows for new and more complex elements to be created. 

HISTORY OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM

The Solar System, including the Earth, formed 4.6 billion years ago from a nebula. The Earth has changed a lot since that time, but the early Earth already contained almost all the elements and matter we find on it today (the only exception is the material that fell to Earth as meteorites since its formation). This matter has changed through chemical and physical processes, and eventually through biological processes as well. A part of this matter now forms each and everyone of us... 

If you like the idea that we are made of stardust, I recommend this presentation I gave during the Astro at Home finale last May. It's a topic I personally love and I've tried to make it accessible to a younger audience in this talk. The section We are stardust is about 20 minutes long.

Week 3 - Are we alone in the universe?

I really like the topic of the search for life in the universe! Humans have been asking the question: Are we alone in the universe? for a very long time and we are only starting to try to answer it scientifically. For now, the answer is: we don't know, but we are looking! We have no irrefutable proof that life exists elsewhere. However, the potential is enormous: we estimate there are billions of planets similar to the Earth in our galaxy alone, and there are billions of galaxies in the universe! 

 

Where should we begin the search for life? There may be life forms completely different from ours, but since we don't know anything about them, it's impossible to know what to look for. It's much more logical and easier to start by looking at life on Earth and the conditions that support it. 

 

Although the living species on Earth are very diverse, all life has similar characteristics (cells, DNA...) and needs: 

 

  • a planet or a moon with a solid surface: we want a solid world, not a gaseous planet like Jupiter, for example. 

  • good temperatures: this world must receive energy from a star, and be neither too hot nor too cold

  • liquid water

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The region around a star where the planets (and moons) would have a temperature where water could be liquid is called the habitable zone. Too close to the star and it is too hot, too far and it becomes too cold. 

I find the term "habitable" not well chosen. Maybe we should say temperate zone instead since we have no idea if we could really live there, or if it is inhabited. All it tells us is that the temperatures would be just right to allow water to remain in liquid form (between 0 and 100 deg. C).

 

The concept of habitable zone is very important in the search for exoplanets since it is one of the first pieces of information we want to know about a planet: could this planet have the right temperatures to support life? 

 

We will explore exoplanets further, but for now, let's look closer to home.

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM

Download the PowerPoint presentation for this week (PDF version).

The Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover and the small Ingenuity helicopter aims to find life on Mars. You may have heard about it in the news since Ingenuity recently completed the first flight on another planet. 

 

An engineer on this mission is Canadian Farah Alibay. She's an extremely inspiring woman and I strongly encourage you to introduce her to your students (do a search for her name, you will find many great interviews). She also presented directly to the kids last year during our Astro at Home series

 

EXOPLANETS

An exoplanet is simply a planet outside our Solar system. We can also describe it as any planet in orbit around any star other than the Sun. 

Many sites allow you to discover the number of exoplanets to date, and to know more about them. Here are some of them:

  • NASA Exoplanets: you can easily see the latest count of confirmed exoplanets there. I invite you to visit their well-explained educational material, including the section 5 ways to find an exoplanet

  • Eyes on Exoplanets: amazing 3D simulation allowing you to see the different worlds and systems discovered. Note that the images of exoplanets are always artists' representations since it's impossible to see them so well. 

  • Exoplanet app, only on Apple devices, presents a lot of information on each exoplanet system. Animations and sky maps make this information more accessible to everyone. 

 

The resource Figuring Outer Space, from the Perimeter Institute and presented during week 2, contains some nice activities related to exoplanets. Check them out! 

 

Many Canadians are involved in the search for exoplanets. We had many experts present during Astro at Home and these videos are great for you, and your students, to learn more about the search for life in the Universe. 

 

 

A question students often ask is: how do we know exoplanets exist if we can't see them? I explained two detection methods in the previous video, and here is a simple activity for your students to understand the transit method: 

Download the activity sheet and description.

Exoplanet research is a fast-paced and exciting field. In the coming years, new telescopes and instruments will allow us to push the limits and study these interesting worlds in greater detail. In particular, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in a few months, and to which Canada is contributing, is greatly anticipated by researchers. Discover the Universe will be developing resources or activities on this telescope. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed! 

 

 

INTERESTING THOUGHTS

 

The search for extraterrestrial life raises many philosophical questions that could be addressed with your students. 

 

  • What would be irrefutable proof that life exists elsewhere? For a long time, the only research that was done was the detection of radio waves (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI program). Some signals were intriguing, but nothing that would allow us to prove extraterrestrial life. In science fiction, we often imagine aliens visiting us, but the distances are so great that interstellar travel would be extremely difficult and would require knowledge that is unknown to us at present. Researchers are now looking at the detection of biomarkers, molecules that could be detected in the atmospheres of exoplanets. For example, oxygen and methane are two interesting biomarkers because they are produced in large quantities by life. But would this detection convince us? 

 

  • How would humanity react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life? Would this discovery affect the beliefs of many people?  The film Contact, released in 1997 (but still relevant today!) presents interesting options to this answer. 

 

 

  • What would this life be like? It is tempting to imagine it as we are, bipedal with a body and a head, but in reality, we have no idea! Discuss with your students how they imagine intelligent aliens. 

 

  • What if we are really alone? If humans really are the most advanced species in the entire Universe, what responsibility do we have? How does this thought make you feel?