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How an Indianapolis teacher is using the solar eclipse to inspire her students

Second graders Hanah Sung, Izaac Stuck and Amaurie Robinson simulate an eclipse by casting a shadow with a play dough moon on an inflatable globe. Their teacher, Natasha Cummings, directs them to aim the shadow over the spot on the globe where Indianapolis would be.
Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
Second graders Hanah Sung, Izaac Stuck and Amaurie Robinson simulate an eclipse by casting a shadow with a play dough moon on an inflatable globe. Their teacher, Natasha Cummings, directs them to aim the shadow over the spot on the globe where Indianapolis would be.

It's a sunny March afternoon at Winchester Village Elementary School in Indianapolis, and teacher Natasha Cummings is leading her class in a brand new lesson. It's the first time she's teaching it – and also likely the last.

The second graders audibly gasp when Cummings explains the day's activity: They'll be simulating a total solar eclipse using the real sun, an inflatable globe and a moon made out of a play dough ball mounted on a stick.

On April 8, a narrow strip of North America will experience a total solar eclipse, in which the moon entirely covers the sun, darkening the sky so that only the sun's corona, a ghostly white ring, will be visible.

Indianapolis is one of several cities in the path of totality. The last time that happened was over 800 years ago, and it won't happen again until 2153.

For many of Cummings' students, this event is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Cummings hopes learning about and witnessing the eclipse will inspire her students, and get them excited about science.

It's an experience she expects them to remember for the rest of their lives.

"This is a story you're gonna be able to tell," she reflects before class.

"You, as a second grader, you experienced this totality."

In a grassy area outside the school, Cummings' eclipse simulation begins: Students take turns holding the inflatable globes, and casting a shadow with their play dough moons. Cummings directs them to aim the shadow over the spot on the globe where Indianapolis would be. It's a little chaotic, but the students quickly figure out how to properly position the moon's shadow over their hometown.

"Good job guys, you're really smart," a student says to his friends.

How an eclipse can inspire a career in the sciences

Thomas Hockey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Northern Iowa, remembers his first eclipse experience fondly. On March 7, 1970, when Hockey was 10 years old, he witnessed a partial solar eclipse outside his home in Angola, Ind. — a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Indianapolis.

Natasha Cummings also led her fifth graders through a solar eclipse lesson. The older kids' eclipse simulation incorporated measurements.
/ Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
/
Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
Natasha Cummings also led her fifth graders through a solar eclipse lesson. The older kids' eclipse simulation incorporated measurements.

It was nearly a year after the Apollo program had put the first person on the moon, and Hockey's interest in space was already developing. But he credits this partial eclipse as one of the reasons he chose to study astronomy.

"It was mesmerizing, as more and more of the sun disappeared, producing an odd shape," Hockey recalls.

It also sparked a fascination with eclipses. Hockey would go on to become what's called an umbraphile — someone who chases eclipses all over the world — and he recently published a book about the history of eclipse chasers.

Hockey says he didn't learn about solar eclipses when he was in grade school. He thinks the fact that elementary school teachers like Cummings are now teaching about them is an indication that science education has improved since he was a child.

Cummings (left) walks fifth graders Donavan Clarke (center) and Kevin Trinidad Cuautle through a solar eclipse simulation using a ping pong ball to represent the moon, and a bright spotlight for the sun.
/ Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
/
Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
Cummings (left) walks fifth graders Donavan Clarke (center) and Kevin Trinidad Cuautle through a solar eclipse simulation using a ping pong ball to represent the moon, and a bright spotlight for the sun.

It's also an opportunity to show kids that science doesn't just happen behind closed doors.

"Science is not done by old, gray-haired people in lab coats, necessarily. Citizens can participate in it. It's not a magic black box, it's all around us," Hockey says.

The April 8 total solar eclipse will be Hockey's ninth. He plans to bring a group of undergraduate students with him to experience totality in his home state of Indiana. He says some of them plan to become science teachers.

"And so they will talk about eclipses to their students, and perhaps we will have a new generation of astronomers inspired by eclipses," Hockey says.

Another important lesson: eclipse safety

For Cummings, teaching her students how to view the eclipse safely is a top priority.

"The only glasses that you should use are the solar eclipse glasses to look at the sun safely," she tells her class.

Exposure to the sun without proper protection can permanently damage the eye's retina. But during totality, which lasts only a few minutes, you won't see the sun's corona with those eclipse glasses on. Totality is the only part of the eclipse that's safe to look at without them.

Outside, her students take turns trying the glasses on and looking up at the sun. They shriek with excitement as they gaze at the unfamiliar orb.

"If you look up and see that orange thing that's right there — it looks like a street light," says second grader Ja'Aire Tate.

Cummings' district, Perry Township Schools, is one of several Indianapolis school systems that chose to make April 8 a remote learning day.

The only way to safely look directly at a total solar eclipse is by looking through special glasses like these, or by creating a pinhole viewer. But be sure to take the glasses off during the few minutes when totality happens, so you don't miss the sun's dim corona.
/ Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
/
Kaiti Sullivan for NPR
The only way to safely look directly at a total solar eclipse is by looking through special glasses like these, or by creating a pinhole viewer. But be sure to take the glasses off during the few minutes when totality happens, so you don't miss the sun's dim corona.

The district says the decision is an effort to keep kids safe: In Indianapolis, the eclipse will become visible around 1:50 p.m., and totality will begin at about 3:06 p.m. — right around the time of school dismissal.

"Traffic will be pretty backed up... we don't want to have buses and cars stuck on the road," says Elizabeth Choi, director of communications for Perry Township Schools.

Cummings tells her students they can ask their parents to purchase eclipse glasses online or at local stores, like Kroger. Or, she says, they can watch a live-stream of the eclipse on YouTube.

But Hockey hopes these kids do get a chance to go outside during the eclipse. Even without eclipse glasses, he says they can make a pinhole viewer with a few common household supplies that will allow them to view the event safely.

He says, "I pretty much guarantee that those children in the path of totality, who have been guided by their teachers or parents to observe the eclipse and do so safely, will remember it the rest of their lives."

Copyright 2024 WFYI Public Radio

Lee V. Gaines
[Copyright 2024 WFYI Public Radio]