To Teach, or Not to Teach?

Today, after the morning 10:30am Insight Lab meeting, CIS professor of Physics and Astronomy, Michael Richmond, paid a visit to the lab. After Mr. Messinger had suggested that we find help for facts about the sun by looking in the CIS building itself, Christi contacted Professor Richmond, who was kind enough to offer some of his time and knowledge. He came and observed our STN and DSE projects, and then, despite not being a Solar Astronomer, was still able to offer many brilliant ideas, as well as some professional insight. We discovered that most of the things that the SDO images tell us, are not exactly very middle school/high school friendly. While teachers and museum tour guides may be able to point out certain facts that each wavelength tells us, they wouldn’t be able to provide a very meaningful explanation for middle/high schoolers and museum visitors.



Take for example the AIA 171 Angstrom wavelength image above (gold). I could tell you that

This wavelength is emitted by iron-9 (Fe IX) at around 600,000 Kelvin. This wavelength shows the quiet corona and giant magnetic arcs called coronal loops. Also, it is in the Upper Transition Region/Quiet Corona solar regions of the Sun.

To a museum-goer, this may be “fascinating,” and induce some mindless head nodding and intrigued-frowning-facial-expressions of pretend understanding. And to a middle/high schooler, I would probably lose their attention and therefor interest by the time I finished the first sentence.

Even if a teacher or museum tour guide managed to keep their attention for the entire three sentences above, there would still be a lot of explaining to do. What is iron-9 (Fe IX)? How does it emit waves? Why does it emit waves of a certain wavelength? Why is there iron in the sun? What does temperature have to do with wavelength? What is the Quiet Corona? Why are there coronal loops? And so on and so forth… Keep in mind, each of these questions will likely spawn more questions that require even more explanation.

If middle/high schoolers and museum-goers are not lost or bored and the sun is still up by the time you explain everything, then you should seriously consider a career in education.

There is a reason why a computer teacher in high school never really teaches you how a computer works. He may explain that the computers communicate by a system of binary codes and sequences, or he might try to explain the different parts of a computer. But, in the end, the image that appears on your screen still seems like wizardry. Even most people who build their own computers by assembling the parts, will not be able to tell you how or why their computer works. The only people who may know how a computer actually works, are likely the people who have gone through numerous years of very specific and focused education. It is not the purpose of a high school or a museum to provide that kind of specific and “exclusive” information.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that high school teachers are wasting their time by trying to explain binary code to students! I’m saying that high school teachers are only giving general information about certain topics so that students can get an “idea” on what a certain topic or area of study is all about. The point is, that the STN’s wavelengths cover very specific information that may be too disconnected from “general knowledge” to interest or be of use to middle/high schoolers. Also, much of the “general information” that the various wavelengths can provide, is not very well understood by even the most well-informed scientists.

For example, we know that sunspots are cooler regions on the Sun’s photosphere and that they are formed by some kind of magnetic field interactions. And as a result of the formation of these sunspots and the magnetic reactions, Coronal Loops form. But that’s about all that we really know. Sunspots and their closely related Coronal Loops are referred to as “phenomenons” because we have failed to accurately predict their formation, patterns, and understand their nature. What we do know about these phenomena is unlikely to satisfy the appetites of the curious.

Still, not all is for naught.

Here’s some general information could still demonstrate with the STN:

  • In Gaseous bodies in space, such as in the Sun and Jupiter, the time it takes for a point on the “equator” to rotate full circle, is less than the time required for a point closer to a pole to rotate full circle.  On the other hand, in solid bodies in space, such as in Earth and Mars, the time it takes for a point on the “equator” to rotate full circle, is equal to the time required for a point closer to a pole to rotate full circle.
    • We could prove this by tracking a point on the equator of the Sun and count how many days it takes for the point to go all the way around the equator. And then we count how many days it takes for a point near one of the poles to go full circle and compare it to our first number.
    • Then repeat the same process on the Earth and compare the results with observations made earlier on the Sun
  • A solar flare is defined as a sudden, rapid, and intense variation in brightness, and occurs when magnetic energy that has built up in the solar atmosphere is suddenly released.
  • A sunspot is a significantly cooler spot on the sun’s surface (photosphere) and is formed by the interactions of the Sun’s magnetic fields.
  • Coronal loops are horseshoe-shaped protrusions of the Sun’s plasma that occur in between pairs of sunspots.
    •  we can point out solar flares, sunspots, and coronal loops, but we can’t really explain much about them.

It would still be a cool and unique experience for middle and high-schoolers to see the Sun in these different perspectives and see up-close what solar flares, sunspots, and coronal loops look like. You can still definitely utilize some basic information about the Sun to introduce the amazing and unexpectedly dynamic nature of the Sun.

Perhaps the lack of understanding that we have about the Sun may inspire the curious to look further.


*special thanks to Professor Michael Richmond




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