In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
As eclipse planning coordinator at Western Kentucky University, Theo Wellington is doing outreach and education programming for Kentucky schools in preparation for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, for which western Kentucky will be the ideal viewing spot. Wellington has an undergraduate degree in astronomy and has spent much of her life educating others about that science, including an 11-year stint at the Sudekum Planetarium in Nashville. She is a solar system ambassador through NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and past president of the Nashville Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society.
Q: You are letting schools know about the many resources available regarding the August 21 eclipse. How have they reacted?
They’re happy we’re there because they were worried they were going to have to figure it out on their own. Part of our job is to make them aware of the resources available and to assure them that they don’t have to do this by themselves. We’ve got lesson plans and activities and most importantly, we have information about how to look at the sun safely. Q: What are some good websites to use as resources?
A great place to start is eclipse2017.org
as well as eclipse2017.nasa.gov
Our website, wku.edu/eclipse will have links to other websites and some teacher resources. Greatamericaneclipse.com has a number of maps. Teachers can ask to use them, and the site will usually send them for free or for a small charge.Q: How many school visits have you made so far?
We started with superintendents because it’s such a big event. Western Kentucky has kind of a zone of responsibility (where the eclipse will be total or nearly total), and we have hit almost 30 districts in that zone. I also have had a session with principals in Logan County and teachers in Scottsville (Allen County). Q: So you’re concentrating on that area because that is where there will be a total eclipse?
We do have a number of districts that are fortunate to be in totality, and we have invited districts in this area that aren’t, to bring students to the stadium here at Western Kentucky University so that they can experience totality. The stadium will seat 20,000.Q: Will the stadium be open to the public as well?
No. We are reserving it for the schools. When you mix the public in, safety becomes a concern. Q: What is the difference between a total eclipse and a partial eclipse?
At 99 percent you are so close, and yet you’ll still be in daylight. The difference between partial eclipse and total is that it is 10,000 times brighter at 99 percent.Q: Have you seen a total eclipse?
No. The last one in the continental U.S. was in 1979, when it nicked the Pacific Northwest. In 1991 there was one that was visible in Hawaii and across the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. After this long drought, seven years from now in 2024, another eclipse path will come through the U.S., except this time, it’ll come out of Mexico, head up through Texas, Arkansas, Illinois and up toward Canada. Normally, Americans might have to travel to other countries to see one, and most of us can’t do that. With this one, it’s not something that you have to be rich to witness.Q: Will all of the schools in the zone of totality be back in session by August 21?
A lot will, but their start dates are all over the map. Q: Is special programming being offered at WKU’s planetarium?
A public show about the eclipse opened May 1. Our regular, free shows are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Schools also can reserve shows. The show is in May and June, and we might offer it again in the weeks right before the eclipse.Q: Could you describe the program?
NASA has provided planetariums with great resources to show why eclipses happen. We also want to explore the general motion of the Earth, moon and sun and the scale of the solar system. In most textbooks, the Earth, moon and sun look like they are right next to each other. They are not sized correctly. So when you describe what’s happening during the eclipse, because our mental model doesn’t match what you’re telling them, it’s harder for people to grasp. A part of the program is a scaling activity.Q: What are schools doing as far as programs tied to the eclipse?
Most are trying to figure out how they’re going to do the day.
The eclipse begins at noon (CT), and 1:30 p.m. is when it’s total. After that, it just unwinds the other way until 3 p.m. Past about 1:45, as it starts to move off the sun, it gets pretty uninteresting. Our suggestion is at that time, go back inside and do projects. There are so many other ways to experience the eclipse. Students can make art. There is literature that involves eclipses. There is history in eclipses. This is a tremendous opportunity to be interdisciplinary.Q: Are there books you would recommend?
Middle school and up, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. For younger children there are many, such as Max Goes to the Moon. Q: You have said you believe this eclipse will be perhaps the biggest public viewing event ever.
Yes. Because of the path, from Oregon to South Carolina, this eclipse is uniquely accessible to a huge fraction of the country. We’ve never had this happen before, where you had an eclipse path cross a highly populated, highly mobile, internet-driven population. Q: How can Kentucky schools that aren’t in the path participate and learn more about eclipses?
For one, we are asking principals to put out forms that parents can fill out to take kids out of school so that if they have a family member who lives in Simpson County or Allen County, for example, they can go hang out for the weekend. Also, we advise them to have a supply of safe solar glasses on hand, because that’s the easiest, safest way to look at the partial phase. We have ordered a huge pile. I don’t have a final list of counties that we’re going to cover, except to say that if you touch Warren County, we’re going to get glasses to you.
Q: As far as protecting the eyes, these glasses are what you recommend?
A: They make it so dark that the only thing you see through them is the sun. When you put them on, you’re essentially blind, except when you are looking at the sun. Because they’re so comfortable, now you’re looking and saying, “Oh look, I can just look at the sun.” There’s much less temptation to do it the hard way.
Q: What is the danger of looking at the sun without these glasses during the eclipse?
A: Normally, you can’t look at the sun. You can try, but it’s too bright. It hurts. But on eclipse day when it gets down to 90 to 95 percent that most of our area would see, that’s when kids think, “Well, I heard there was something to see, and it’s really cool. I know you’re not supposed to look,” but then they’ll try anyway. That’s why we’d prefer they be with their parents or in school, because it’s a lot easier to control the experience.
Q: What kinds of resources have you seen that could be fun, interesting and educational?
A: The NASA site is a good place to start. For older kids, the eclipse visualizations are nice. On the day of, there will be streaming video, and again NASA’s going to be carrying this from coast to coast, because Oregon starts first. You’ll be able to go online and watch people cheer and shout and know that it’s coming our way at 2,000 miles an hour.
Q: Other ideas?
A: Once you hit middle school, everybody’s got a phone, and there are apps they can use to make measurements during the eclipse. Obviously temperature would be fun or cloud cover. If you are near animals, it would be fun to see how the animals react to the eclipse. One of the cool science experiments to be done by students involves weather balloon launches. They’re going to measure temperature and many other things and see how the shadowing of the sun changes the atmosphere. There will be video from some of those. Those balloons go up to 100,000 feet and look back on the Earth, and you can see the curve by that point. So they’ll see the shadow from a different perspective.
Q: Do you think this eclipse will have long-lasting value for science?
A: For our generation, there was the moon landing, and while most of us could not become astronauts, it sparked an interest in science. If you talk to doctors and others, they’ll say, “I really got interested in science because I watched the Apollo landings.” Astronomy is a gateway science. It’s totally accessible. Anybody can watch the moon. Anybody can go out and look at the stars at night. You don’t need special equipment. But it gets kids hooked. Space is cool. The only other thing that is as cool as space to kids are dinosaurs, and I don’t have any of those, but we can do space.