Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Young Astronomers Study the Night Sky — and Collaborate with Peers Online

An international stargazing event inspires young scientists.

January 28, 2009

For the first time in human history, more than half of the world's inhabitants live in cities, where they're surrounded by bright lights that obscure their view of the stars. Astronomers worry that this disconnection from the night sky not only diminishes people's appreciation of a valuable natural resource -- one that has inspired scientists and poets alike for millennia -- but also poses health concerns, such as disruption of sleep cycles.

To spark public awareness, astronomers and educators came together in 2005 and 2006 to create an international star-hunting project for students, teachers, and the general public known as GLOBE at Night. This year, the annual event takes place March 16-28, the 13 days when the Orion constellation will be visible to naked eyes from almost any location on Earth.

"We're hoping that by encouraging children to reconnect with the night skies and learn about light pollution, we're creating citizen scientists who will work to protect this resource," says Connie Walker, senior science-education specialist and astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), in Tucson, Arizona. "And teachers like GLOBE at Night because it lends itself to cross-curricular learning: geography, history, literature, writing. The possibilities are great." (Check out these online resources about astronomy.)

GLOBE at Night is run by the NOAO and the nonprofit organization Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE), an interactive science-based education program with members in 110 countries. The basic project is simple: On clear nights during the specified two-week period, students go outside between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. local time and find the constellation of Orion, including the three distinctive stars that make up Orion's Belt. They then compare what they saw to eight GLOBE images depicting varying degrees of light pollution, which teachers may download free. Students and others may also use sky-quality meters, which measure the brightness of the night sky. The meters are available for about $120 each from the manufacturer; deliveries take at least six business days.

Back at school, students log on to the GLOBE Web site, identify their latitude and longitude, and report their observations. GLOBE compiles the information and produces maps for teachers to use in lessons about population density, light pollution, geography, and related topics.

Last year, GLOBE at Night collected more than 6,800 measurements of night-sky brightness from students in 62 countries. Walker and her colleagues anticipate even greater participation this year, the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first peek through his rudimentary telescope. To honor the milestone, the United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, which prompted some school districts to expand their astronomy curricula.

Art Klinger, planetarium director for the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, in Mishawaka, Indiana, and a colleague designed a series of lessons on topics such as how animal habitats are affected by light pollution and how energy efficiency can be improved with smarter artificial light. After recording their observations, a team of about 70 students from various schools in his district will plot their results on a local map and then present their findings to the school board, along with opportunities for improvement. "I think the board is looking forward to this," Klinger says, "not only because it's a great application of student learning, but also because it's information we can use."

In northeastern Connecticut, each fifth-grade class in 36 districts will participate in activities with a counterpart in another state or country. Nancy Magnani, staff developer at the area's regional educational service center, says, "We want these kids to understand that the sky is a resource we all share, so we all share responsibility for protecting it," she says. "I hope our students look up during GLOBE at Night and think, 'I wonder how this looks in Romania or Ohio.'"

Data aside, educators and astronomers are hopeful that these young stargazers will ultimately draw the same conclusion about their world: The night sky is an irreplaceable natural resource that's worth protecting. "One day, we might take this data to Congress or to state legislatures to lobby for regulations on artificial light," Walker says. "And then imagine how great these students' impact will be."

Hilary Masell Oswald is a freelance writer in Denver.

Go to "Astronomy Resources for Teachers."

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