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Starring:
Charles Lindgren


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"There's so much good science involved in the Sun Angle Lab," says Charles Lindgren. "You are dealing with real data. If you have several students measuring the angle, the results are never the same. The students then must decide how to interpret the data."

Lindgren has taught science at Gates Intermediate School in Scituate, Massachusetts, for 39 years. Several years ago, after participating in a workshop about the SOHO Sun Satellite at the Goddard Space Flight Center, he and other participants contributed to a booklet of lessons designed to accompany on-air programs about the sun from PBS, NASA, and Passport to Knowledge's Live from the Sun. The idea for the Sun Angle Lab was discussed among the participants, but wasn't chosen to be included in the booklet, so Lindgren decided to run with it in his own classroom.

Students photograph their partners to
determine the angle of the sun.

"The lab is so simple!" Lindgren told Education World. "Students go out once a month at local noon -- I do it around the 20th -- and point a meter stick at the sun. They maneuver the stick until it doesn't cast a shadow. Then a partner stands in front of each student and uses a protractor to measure the angle the meter stick makes with the ground. An alternative is to take a digital image of the person, and use some type of image processing software such as NIH Image to measure the angle."

Going out and actually observing the sun at noon is a revelation to many students, Lindgren reports. Almost all of them believe that the sun is at its zenith at noon, and they are amazed to discover where it really is. The lab helps students better understand seasons through a gentle monthly reminder. It also is naturally suited to an online community.

"Scituate is just one tiny data point at 42 degrees north latitude," observed Lindgren. "What is happening at other places on the globe? By opening up the activity to different schools, we accumulate more data, and other schools do the same. If the measurements are done carefully, everyone can see the progression of the sun as it moves from month to month. If the measurements are not done carefully, or are not done at all, students must decide what went wrong, or what the potential answers could be."

Of course, the students' favorite part of the activity is going outside. As the year goes on, they notice how low the angle of the sun becomes. When Lindgren first presents the lab, all the students go outside and learn to measure the angle. Because they have a rotating schedule, all of Lindgren's classes eventually get to make a local noon observation. Digital images are taken of the students and published on the project's Web site.

Students are amazed to see
how close their results are.

"My students are very serious about shooting the angle and getting it right," reports Lindgren. "They are amazed when they look around and see that almost all the meter sticks are at the same angle! I am always impressed with the schools that stay with the activity for the entire year. Over the course of the year, we build up friendships with some of the schools, and end up sharing a great deal of additional information, such as information about weather, major storms, what students are doing in school, and so on."

Lindgren presents the Sun Angle Lab online project in conjunction with two other activities: First, each student is assigned a world city to follow from the autumnal to the vernal equinox. Using NOAA's Sunrise/Sunset Calculator, students measure -- for more than 60 cities around the world -- the length of daylight on about the 20th of each month to see how the amount of daylight varies based on latitude. And, once a week, students follow the path of the sun as it moves from equinox to equinox by plotting the location of the rising or setting sun on a photograph or diagram.

Although he finds them a challenge, Lindgren has organized several other online projects. He warns that interest can diminish quickly and without explanation. From his experience, the most successful projects take little time and are simple to complete. Clear expectations and directions for participants are also essential. Another lesson Lindgren has learned is to remain in contact with classrooms that have shown interest, even if they do not respond. Every month during the week that the observation is due, he sends a reminder to each school participating in his Sun Angle Lab.

"Online activities allow us to take our students beyond the walls of the classroom to anywhere in the world," said Lindgren. "I have had schools in several foreign countries participate in my humble activity. Doing an activity like this makes us a true community of learners."

Photos provided by Charles Lindgren.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]onworld.com

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

02/17/2006