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I went outside early this morning while it was still dark, looked up, and saw all my old constellation friends -- Orion (with its bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse), Canis Major (the Big Dog, with Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky), Canis Minor (the Little Dog, with Procyon), Gemini (with Castor and Pollux), Auriga (with Capella), and Taurus (with Aldebaran and the Pleiades).
I’ve been watching these constellations since I was a child, and there’s always been some comfort in the fact that they’re always there when and where expected. So I think of them as old friends.
The appearance of these constellations is a sign that winter is approaching. Early this morning, those constellations were in the southwest but could have been seen in the (eastern) sky as early as about 11:00 PM. As the months go by, they will be visible at the same place in the sky earlier in the night, until, in winter, those constellations will be visible in the early evening -- a more convenient time for most people to view the constellations. That is why they are considered to be winter constellations.
To the upper left of those constellations, I also saw Jupiter. It’s in Leo right now, and if you go out in the early-morning hours some time in the next few days, you can’t miss it (if the sky is clear). These days Jupiter is the brightest object in the pre-dawn sky.
It would make an interesting long-term project for students to watch the constellations throughout the school year and see how their positions in the sky and the times when they’re visible change due to the motion of the earth.
Dr. Matthew Bobrowsky
University of Maryland University College
Director of Special Programs
College of Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Technology
Delaware State University
1200 N. DuPont Highway
Dover, DE 19901-2277
4370 Activity Points
I really appreciate your love of the constellations and admire your ability to be able to name them. I grew up in the country where there were no city lights to interfere with being able to view the constellations well. A part of my childhood that is forever cherished.
I can’t help but wonder what I could do to help my middle school students and their younger siblings have the same experience. I wonder if constellations and their stories are even taught any more. I remember the tribal tales being some of my favorites.
Mr. Linehan, my 4th grade teacher had us make “constellation viewers” out of small coffee cans, which would now be replaced by Pringles cans. The cook at the school would cut out the other end of the coffee can, and we would use a second lid that had a circle cut out to peer through. We would trace a circle around the coffee can lid onto black construction paper. We would then draw the constellation onto the paper, making sure we had the star points clearly marked. We would use the point of a compass to poke holes into the paper where the stars were, then take either a white colored pencil or chalk and “connect the dots,” to form the constellation. We would create many constellation circles so we could view a variety of constellations over time. I remember ever so carefully inserting the circle into the plastic lid so I could see the constellation. What a thrill I had as a child when I could use this model as a guide throughout the year to help me learn the stars. I am now 57 years old. Obviously this made an impression on me since I can so clearly remember the experience 48 years later.
I wonder if I will make the same impact on my students.
I am adding a collection of resources I found through a search of the Learning Center of articles and book chapters related to constellations and stars.
42985 Activity Points
Thanks so much for this post! I had just gone to the Maryland Science Center for one of my classes, and visited the Planetarium for the show "The Sky Live" which basically projected the current night sky up on the domed screen. It was so interesting learning about 'winter' and 'summer' constellations, and I even learned that we can see, with proper darkness, the Andromeda Galaxy with our naked eye! I think constellations would be a fantastic long-term assignment, you can even engaged students more by introducing them to the stories of Orion and the astrological figures.
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Thank you for posting this Matt!
We try to time our astronomy unit to the winter stargazing months just so we can have the best viewing - even if it means chilly weather.
I've attached two collections of NSTA resources I use with my classes here as well.
26195 Activity Points
This was an amazing post! I, for one, am in love with the night sky. I love being able to watch the different phases of the moon and I love seeing how the sky changes. I'm from Miami, so there is a lot of light pollution. However, with cooler nights comes clearer skies and it has been absolutely beautiful. I've had projects where I have had to observe the moon and its different positions in the sky, it is absolutely a great project for students to complete. Knowing directional and positional standings for the moon and even the constellations as you mention in this post is definitely something that I will be integrating in my classroom! GREAT POST!
1355 Activity Points
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