Aurora borealis becomes powerful teaching tool

Posted: Monday, December 01, 2003

If aurora displays can lure scientists and laymen from the heat of the wood stove into the frigid night air, consider the fascination they must induce in curious youngsters.

It is just that kind of wonder that Kalifornsky Beach Ele-mentary School teacher Jason Daniels tries to feed as he encourages his fourth-grade students to study the night sky.

"If I wasn't a teacher, I'd have been a scientist," Daniels said.

Inspired by his father, who was an oceanographer, Daniels grew up surrounded by science and enticed by scientific questions.

Many of his students exhibit the same inquisitiveness, and part of their curriculum covers space science and related topics.

"The aurora will come up," he said. "Most years, we have it as an art project that spurs conversation. I teach them about the science behind the northern lights."

"Why?" is the most asked question, Daniels said, followed by more questions when his explanation of the basic physics doesn't satisfy them.

"It's like a snowball effect. Kids will ask if they can research it on the Internet," he said. "I can't supply the amount of knowledge they are trying to consume. The Internet has been a wonderful resource, particularly for science and math. Kids will bring in extra research, which I encourage."

The aurora has been a frequent topic, especially with the recent increase in solar activity, he said.

While the curriculum touches on the aurora, it has a broader reach, Daniels said.

For instance, in January, the Imaginarium in Anchorage will loan the school a Star Lab portable planetarium. The 22-foot diameter, 11-foot high dome is big enough for several students to crawl into and gaze up at 2000 stars in the night sky.

"It's like an igloo, only it's kept up by air pressure," he said. "We do it almost every year."

Daniels has taught at K-Beach for six years and had a Star Lab at the school every year but one. Students from kindergarten through sixth grade get a chance to use it.

"They absolutely love it," he said. "Anytime kids can get a hands-on experience, their excitement and knowledge increases a lot more than from a book. They ask a lot of questions but come up with more than I can answer."

Like their fascination with dinosaurs, youngsters often find the stars a self-motivating topic, Daniels said.

On Dec. 10, students at K-Beach will get a special treat. NASA astronaut Bill Oefelein is expected to visit the school and other locations around the Kenai Peninsula. ConocoPhillips is sponsoring the trip, Daniels said.

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