Montgomery College's Planetarium, Grade-Specific School Programs

Picture of school group coming to the planetarium at Montgomery College

 

THE NIGHT SKY FOR ALL

A planetarium visit can inspire the wonder of the night sky at any age or grade level. Our children are deprived of the night sky because of early bed times, unsafe outdoor conditions, and light pollution in cities; but we offer the night sky at every visit to the planetarium. The Spitz 512 planetarium projector shows 1,834 naked eye stars, the Milky Way (the band of diffuse light caused by the disk of our own galaxy), the five naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the earth's moon, and the large and small Magellanic clouds (companion galaxies of our own Milky way that are visible from the southern hemisphere). The planetarium star projector allows us to take a trip to any place on the earth and view the sky. The large and small Magellanic clouds, for instance, are not visible from the Washington metro area. The planetarium star projector allows us to take a trip forward or backward in time and to see the constellations shift positions with different north and south pole stars-these shifts are not perceptible within a single human life time. The planetarium star projector allows us to compress time and see the motion of the planets (planet means "wandering star") with respect to the fixed stars-these motions would require months of nightly observations in order to see them in the real sky. But even with all of this to offer, so much more can be done within the Montgomery College, Takoma Park/Silver Spring planetarium. Using the Program of Studies from the Office of Instruction and Program Development, Montgomery County Public Schools, we have planned the following grade-specific planetarium programs.

The planetarium is typically open from the last full week in August until the Friday before Memorial day in May or College commencement day. This is an academic institution so there are a few holidays like Thanksgiving and around Christmas and new year's day when the entire institution is closed.  Wednesday is my day off since we have programs on Saturday and occasionally on Sunday.  So please plan your school trips for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday, but not Wednesday unless Wednesday is the only day you can come and you have a very good reason. 

Kindergarten: Star Patterns

None of the County instructional objectives for kindergarten are directly addressed by planetarium programs, although concepts such as "near and far," "large and small," and similar comparisons certainly apply. Suggestions from imaginative teachers are welcome. However, many kindergarten children are afraid of the dark unless the number of hand-holding adults is at least one for two children. (Most first graders are not afraid of the dark if warned in advance.) If you have a kindergarten class that you would like to bring to the planetarium, please give me a call. Children at this age are very good at learning and recognizing patterns in the sky.

First Grade: Sun Shadows

Universe in Change: "Identify that the position of shadows cast by objects in the sun changes during the day.'' An equatorial sundial made of a card with a drinking straw as a gnome illustrates this well. Both students and teachers can build this simple object. The students will need help in installing the soda straw at the correct angle. However, even if the angle is wrong and the gnome is not oriented close to true geographical north, the shadow change throughout the day is apparent. In the first grade clock reading is generally also an objective, and a correctly made and pointed equatorial sundial is readable directly in hours, just like a clock face. Of course, it will read local apparent solar time, not zone mean solar time.

Second Grade: Sun-Earth-Moon Dance

Universe in Change: "Describe revolution as movement around an object." One year passes when the earth revolves about the sun. A small globe moved about an incandescent light, the sun, demonstrates this. "Describe rotation as the spinning of an object in complete turns on its axis." One day passes when the earth rotates about its polar axis. An incandescent bulb in a fixed spot (the sun) and the same globe demonstrate day and night. Once the students see revolution and rotation modeled as they would appear from outside the solar system, then they are ready to view the same thing as seen from the earth, projected on the planetarium dome.

Third Grade: Measurer's of the Solar System

Universe in Change: "Identify the relative position of the planets to the sun." Students can build a scale model of the solar system with the earth as a peppercorn, the sun as an eight-inch ball, and Jupiter as a chocolate-covered cherry. An outdoor walk of 1,000 yards times shows the distance between the planets correctly. Such "planet models" have been assembled in the planetarium now. If the teacher will bring at least one chocolate covered cherry for each student, then we can eat Jupiter. The other planets are edible, but not particularly palatable (except Uranus and Neptune, the Spanish peanuts, and Saturn, the corn nut). We can munch on the smaller planets, too, if you bring enough Spanish peanuts and corn nuts for the entire class. The planetarium budget will allow me to provide the planets for the scale-model solar system walk, but not to feed your class. The motion of the planets relative to the fixed stars and their retrograde loops with respect to the fixed stars can be easily demonstrated in the planetarium; true understanding of this motion for third graders is probably too much to expect, but they should be exposed to the wonder of it. Introducing a little vocabulary, like "retrograde motion of the superior planets" is certainly harmless as long as pressure for understanding is not expected. Another county instruction objective is "construct a sun-earth-moon model and explain the phases of the moon." White Styrofoam balls on a stick are in the planetarium now for use as moons. A student's head plays the role of the earth, and the incandescent light bulb is the sun. Full moon rises in the east when the sun sets in the west. New moon rises and sets with the sun. Waxing moon is up before the sun sets with the lighted side pointing to where the sun is at. Waning moon rises after the sun has set with the lighted side pointing to where the sun will rise. This ditty is more for the teachers' benefit than the students' at this age, except for the gifted students.

Fourth Grade: Star Navigators

Universe in change: "Determine the relative position of objects in commonly used directional terms." The cardinal points of north, east, south, and west on the horizon of the planetarium will be used for this. It is also appropriate to introduce the north pole and how latitude is determined by it. The students can build an Arabic Kamal out of a 3x5 card, string, and knot for the latitude of Washington, D.C. This device also illustrates how simple some types of navigation by the stars are and clearly points out our cultures' great, but often overlooked, debt to the Arab world. Pointing out some of the many Arabic names that we have adopted for the bright stars should reinforce this lesson. Once the Kamal is made for the latitude of Washington, D.C., we can look at the simulated night sky from another latitude, and the students can use their Kamals to tell us whether to sail north or south to get back home, just like Sinbad the sailor on his Dahomey. Another objective under "the universe in change" is to "Describe the relative motion of an object with respect to the position or motion of another object." This can be explained in the planetarium by showing the retrograde motion of the superior planets. This concept will be more likely to be intelligible if these students have seen the retrograde loops in the third grade during a previous planetarium visit. The fact that the sun itself goes around the disk of the Milky Way galaxy in about 240,000,000 years will be pointed out. The disk of the Milky Way, our own galaxy, is clearly visible in the planetarium.  PowerPoint presentations used for part of the program on the Kamal.
British School of Washington Using Kamals in the planetarium

Fifth Grade: Newton's Laws

Energy: "Demonstrate that any change in motion is caused by unbalanced forces" (Newton's second law), and "explain that the property of inertia makes objects remain at rest or continue in motion" (Newton's first law). Both concepts can be demonstrated in the planetarium. Gravity will be discussed as the force that causes weight and circular motion (instead of straight line motion) in a planetarium program for this grade. Matter: Molecules, atoms, and various chemical properties are discussed. At this point a song about the elemental composition of the universe could be taught to the class, as they are apt to have some appreciation for what some of the words really mean, such as hydrogen and helium.
Twinkle, Twinkle, little star.
Yes I know just what you are.
You're three-quarters hydrogen,
and one-quarter helium
with trace amounts of other things
from pink sea shells, to diamond rings.
My daughter could sing this song in kindergarten, but I suspect that she had no real grasp of what exactly hydrogen and helium were then.  She has graduated from Montgomery College with an AA in art, then transferred to Drexel University and graduated with a B.S. in graphic art in March of 2006.   I am now sure that she understands all parts of this song now.

Sixth Grade: Star Light, spectra of stars

In the sixth grade students "investigate the sun and the stars and study the concept of electromagnetism." Some physics demonstration equipment will be in the planetarium for this: a gas discharge tube of hydrogen and another of helium with plastic diffraction gratings handed our to each student for viewing the unique discrete emission spectra of these ubiquitous elements. Diffraction gratings give a better dispersion of the spectrum, are easier to hold in the hand, and are cheaper than prisms (which produce spectra by refraction). Diffraction gratings also work using the wave aspect of electromagnetic radiation---although I am not sure that the average six grader can appreciate this subtlety (some college students seem to not truly appreciate this). Re-singing the elemental composition of the universe song is not a bad idea. With the diffraction gratings, a continuous spectrum from a clear incandescent filament with low current will be cooler and predominately red in color, and with high current will be hotter and predominately blue in color. This a qualitative way of grasping Wien's law. This will partially help the students achieve the goal under "the universe in change," Demonstrate that the apparent brightness of stars is related to their size, distance, and temperature." Slides will be used to explain that distance diminishes the brightness of light by the inverse square law for point sources. The size of a star has a direct effect on its apparent brightness, which can be demonstrated by comparing Deneb, which is bright but very far away, to bright but very near stars in the summer triangle, such as Vega and Altair. Perhaps the students should be shown the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which is the heart of stellar astronomy. After all, if you understand this diagram, you can understand about half of everything that is said in a professional meeting of astronomers and astrophysicists. The H-R diagram as a unifying principle in astronomy is as important as natural selection is in the life sciences. Another sixth grade objective under "the universe in change" is to "Demonstrate a technique for sampling the number of stars in the sky." This is a planetarium activity taken directly from the Spitz manual and can be done quantitatively with round cardboard viewing tubes for each student. Newton's third law, which is sometimes so hard for students to grasp is also introduced in this grade under "the universe in change" objective "Demonstrate that in the movement of objects, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Gravity always gives rise to pairs of motion in the cosmos. Two other objectives that are best addressed in a planetarium in this grade are: (1) "Explain that the movement of the earth relative to the sun occurs in a regular and orderly manner" (yearly motion). It is appropriate to turn on the ecliptic coordinate system, something unique to a planetarium. (2) "Explain that the apparent movement of stars is a result of the rotation of the earth." The sixth grade curriculum is so rich in things that can best be done in a planetarium that several visits and detailed coordination with the classroom teacher would be very helpful.

Seventh Grade: Life in the Void

In the seventh grade the theme of the science program is life science. Three different hour-length programs are available for seventh graders with an emphasis on life science. Living in Space explores what humans have to do to adjust to weightlessness and the absence of air and a comfortable temperature. Protecting humans from too much radiation is also stressed. Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, SETI investigates how and why we are looking for alien intelligence in a vast and mostly empty universe. To search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life we are forced to think very critically about what sort of signals terrestrial intelligent life might send to the cosmos. Viking's Search for Life on Mars reviews our effort to see if microbial life exists in the soil of the red planet. This program forces us to examine the most basic properties of the simplest organisms and to think hard about the characteristics that distinguish living things from nonliving things.

Eighth Grade: Origin of the Solar System

In the Eighth grade the theme of the science program is the universe in change. One of the many objectives is to compare and contrast the theories governing the origin of the solar system. Every text book, even those written for college students and published this year, are vague and outdated on this topic. Since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on star formation and am still actively doing research in this field, I can certainly remedy this situation. Some of prettiest regions in the sky are places where active star formation are occurring right now. We can not yet see planets around other stars, but we do see dust disks around many of the younger ones. This is a very dynamic subject in which gravitational energy is transformed into rotational energy. Students will see the difference between potential and kinetic energy and what difference this makes in understanding a real scientific problem. Many things about star and planet formation are still not understood, but many things are also clearly understood, at least in broad outline. Scientific visualization of isodensity surfaces and the evolution of rotational kinetic energy using hydrodynamics of self gravitating gas clouds is shown; some of this I did for my dissertation, some of this I am doing now, and some visualizations are the works of others.

Besides the Grade Specific programs listed above any traveling talk may be done in the planetarium even more effectively than outside the planetarium and any of the monthly planetarium programs listed and several cultural programs like Havdalah, Whisper of Creation, Islamic Astronomy, Star of Bethlehem and almost anything else including past monthly planetarium programs that I do not have on the current schedule like astrolabes and navigation or what ever else you think might be done in a planetarium and meet the curricular need of the group.  I have been running planetarium programs at Montgomery College now for more than two decades and all programs are live and not canned.  I am very entertaining (but the planetarium programs are all educational "No Cowboy Bob in Space Programs") and capable of challenging people of all grade levels from pre-school to senior citizens and all cognitive levels from downs syndrome, to students on ventilators, to the deaf with interpreters, to the emotionally disturbed (I have been bitten once; it did not break the skin, but it sure did hurt).  Human being no longer frighten me (they did the first six months of the job many decades ago occasionally), and I can accommodate the easily frightened special needs people.   I can also handle curious genius, like a second grader who could solve the quadratic equations and invert matrices (I know, I tested him, I do not believe everything I am told; in fact, I am a contraian, but try to remain pleasant most of the time).  I like people to interrupt and ask questions and prefer Socratic dialog as opposed to monologue.  I have an interrupted communication style.  This is a planetarium not a planetorium, a place for dead planets.  If you come you will feel challenged and you will have a good time as well.

All Grades Language Arts and Social Studies

The form of the constellations and the stories in the sky have English language arts and social studies significance. The most obvious detailed multiconstellation story is the story of Perseus, Andromeda, Cetus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, but there are actually stories about most of the other 88 constellations with the exception of Microscopium and Telescopium. There are also alternative constellation grouping and naming in other cultures. There is almost an endless source of folk tales. All that would be needed to complete the fantasy of telling stories outdoors underneath the night sky would be a simulated campfire. This will be done through an appeal to the students' imagination.

HOW DO I GET MY CLASS TO THE PLANETARIUM?

Now that you are excited about getting your class into the planetarium, this is how you do it: you call Harold Williams, the planetarium director of Montgomery College at Takoma Park/Silver Spring. My office phone is [240]-567-1463. We can then schedule a time and date. It costs no money. Of course, you have to arrange transportation to Montgomery College, Takoma Avenue and Fenton Street, Takoma Park, Maryland 20912-4197.
Directions to the planetarium.
My office used to be in the planetarium (but now is near the planetarium in Science North 106); the planetarium has a conspicuous silver-colored domed roof and is loosely attached to Science South on Fenton Street (technically the room is labeled Science South 130). Group size is limited to 42 (the number of seats in the planetarium) per session. If two classes come together with 25 students in each class, then that is two sessions not one. If more than 42 persons come, plan to occupy one group while the other is in the planetarium. I hope to hear from you soon. The stars are the providence of all of mankind.

My list of Educational Resources in Astronomy.

Montgomery College's Planetarium home page.

web page by Dr. Harold Williams, updated Wednesday 2:50AM on June 27, 2012.