A Pre- or Post-Planetarium Visit Activity About Constellations
Offered by April Whitt, Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Students will create constellations from their own names. This objective supports those of the United States National Science Education Standards and the National Council of the Teachers of Mathematics:
NSES: History and Nature of Science: Science as a human endeavor
NCTM: Connections: Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics (in this lesson – graphing)
Overhead transparency of constellation grid
Transparency marker (a dark color)
Copy of constellation grid sheet for each student
Pencil for each student
Make an overhead transparency copy of the constellation grid (the sheet is labeled "Personal Constellation” at the end of this file). You will use it to demonstrate how to plot names onto the grid.
Make a copy of the constellation grid sheet for each student. Students will work on this mission individually, then share their creations with the whole group.
Create a constellation picture from your own name for practice. See the example.
Ask students to name some constellations. How many know their "astrological sign" (zodiac)?
Discuss what constellations are and how people have developed them over time. Ask the students if they have ever chosen "their star” or have a favorite pattern of stars.
Some background (adapted from The Universe in the Classroom newsletter number 21, Fall 1992, copyright 1992 by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, California 94112, USA) For thousands of years, people have looked to the stars to navigate across oceans and deserts, to know when to plant and harvest, and to preserve their legends and folklore. The appearance and disappearance of certain stars over the course of each year enabled ancient people to mark the changing seasons, creating the first calendars. To make the celestial calendar easier to read, they grouped some of the brighter stars into recognizable shapes, called constellations.
Astronomers officially recognize 88 constellations, which cover the entire sky – both northern and southern hemispheres. The majority of star patterns we see
from Earth bear little, if any, resemblance to the figures they’re supposed to represent. Ancient observers may have meant them to be symbolic, not literal, figures. What constellations you see during a year depends on both your position on Earth, and Earth’s position along its orbit.
Each culture that created its own constellations connects the stars differently, and call the resulting pictures by different names. The pattern that we in the United States call the Big Dipper, or the Drinking Gourd, is part of the constellation Ursa Major, or Big Bear. In Britain, the Dipper pattern is called the Plough. It’s a wagon in Germany and France, seven sages in India, the foreleg of a bull to ancient Egyptians, and the Heavenly Emperor’s chariot to the early Chinese.
Legends and myths were associated with constellations. As urban areas grow, polluting the sky with light, fewer and fewer of us have the opportunity to see the glory of a clear night sky. Learning some of those star stories, and learning to recognize constellations, will help students see the night sky as a collection of old friends, rather than a confusing mess of dots.
Project the transparency and ask students if they have graphed data before. Review X axis and Y axis if necessary, and demonstrate how to write a name down the Y axis. Note that skipping a space between each letter of the name will make a more interesting shape.
Checking for Understanding:
Distribute the constellation grid sheets and instruct students to write their own names on the Y axis of their sheet. They can use first name, first and last names, or nicknames.
Using the transparency, demonstrate how to plot stars on the grid. Start with the first letter of the written name. Follow along the line parallel to the X axis until you come to that letter of the alphabet and draw a star in that square. Check that the students understand the procedure, and invite them to plot their own names.
When all stars have been plotted, ask students to study the pattern and create a constellation. The paper may be held in any orientation, and one or several constellations might be created, depending on the students’ imaginations.
Have students "connect the dots” and draw a picture of their personal constellation.
Checking for Understanding:
Ask students to share their constellations with the group.
Personal Constellation Activity Directions
The alphabet is written across the top (X axis) of the graph worksheet. Instruct each student to write his name vertically down the Y axis. (Skipping a space between each letter of the name will spread the picture out better.) Students can use any combination of first, middle, last or nicknames or initials.
Start with the first letter in the written name. Follow along that row parallel to the X axis until you come to the column with that letter of the alphabet and draw a star in that square (see example). Continue with the other letters.
Then have students look at the stars and find a pattern. The paper may be held in any orientation, and one or several constellations could be created, depending on the individual’s imagination.
Have students "connect-the-dots” and draw a picture of their constellation. As a further activity, they could write stories to accompany their star pictures.
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