Classroom Ideas and Activities
In this area you can find various downloads and ideas for classroom or family activities. These activities are aimed at a general audience but can be adapted for use as part of a more simple or complex lesson/activity as required.
Classroom activity - Learning about Constellations.
Familiarise your class with the twenty-eight constellations by making your own star-finders.
Download a template and instructions (PDF 2.9MB) and follow the discussion points below. You will need scissors, paper, pens and star shaped stickers or glow-stars.
Lesson plan/discussion points
- Discuss key astronomical terms with your class – star, planet, comet, constellations. Establish how ‘classification’ helps our understanding of the world.
- Discuss the notion of constellations as groupings of stars with your class – point out that different cultures recognise different constellations, but the stars contained within them are still the same. Why might assigning names and characteristics to groups of stars be useful? You can use the analogy of searching for an address to help explain.
- Show your class an image of a western star chart. (you can download an image suitable for projection or viewing on a computer from this page (Jpeg 768 KB). Highlight some familiar western constellations and ask if anyone can identify them. Then show the Chinese star chart (you can download a free printable wall chart from this page (PDF 7.9MB). Ask your class to look at the two and stress how difficult they are to compare. Explain how this attachment of certain characteristics to groups of stars has led to various myths and superstitions about their importance and meanings.
- Divide your class into four groups corresponding to the four directions of the sky. Students should make and use the star finders in pairs to choose a constellation and discover its meaning. Each person in a group should focus on a different constellation, and then locate it on the large star chart.
- In groups, ask your class to use paper and glow stars or stickers to plot these constellations in relation to one another. Ask what the shapes of the constellations remind people of? Ask your class to think of their own ways to remember them better? Get your students to draw images around their constellations and then compare the drawings, as a whole class, with the images that the Chinese used.
- Look at some of the constellations and their meanings and myths. Examine the differences between astronomy and astrology, and how the two are linked in traditional Chinese culture.
Classroom activity – Make Cup Projectors
For this activity you will need a room that can be completely darkened, with a blank ceiling. This activity is best done with a group of students. Each student will need to choose one constellation.
If you have not already done so, download a wallchart (PDF 7.9MB) showing the Chinese constellations from this page. You will need one disposable cup and one torch per student, plus pens and pencils.
Lesson plan/discussion points
- Ask your students to each choose a constellation from the star chart and draw it on the top of a cardboard or styrofoam cup.
- Using a pen or sharpened pencil, instruct them to punch a small hole into each star that they have drawn. The holes need to be small to keep the projection focused. Make sure that the holes are no wider than a few millimetres in diameter.
- Give each student a torch and, referring to the wallchart, ask them to arrange themselves in the right position for their chosen constellation. This may take a little coordination! Ask each student to hold their cup upside down over the torch so the base of the cup is facing straight up to the ceiling.
- Make sure all curtains and blinds are pulled. Turn off the main light in the room and ask your students to turn on their torches. Rotate any cups until all the projections are facing in the right direction. As coordinator, you may need to direct the students to get this right. Students can move cups upwards to enlarge constellations, or lower them down to reduce the size.
- Ask your students to identify each other’s constellations and try to give information about their associations. You can also ask students to swap projectors and try to find their new positions to test their knowledge of the sky. Try this exercise with Chinese and European constellations and see which they know best.
Classroom activity - Make a Sundial
Before the invention of the clock, people used the sky to help them find their way and tell the time of day or season. Sundials, or rigui 日晷 in Chinese, were basic instruments with a mounted arm called a gnomon which cast a shadow on a bronze or stone dial when the sun shone upon them. The shadow indicated the time of day. The earliest sundial of China, according to historical documents, was the flat horizontal dial plate, or the horizontal sundial invented in AD 574.
Make a sundial with your class to explain how shadows cast by planets (the sun in this case) can help us to tell the time.
Download a template for your sundial (PDF 340KB). You will also need scissors, glue, a compass, sellotape, a craft knife and some cardboard.
Lesson plan/discussion points
- Ask your students to stick the two templates onto sheets of cardboard or old cereal packets to reinforce them.
- Take the main template. Ask the students to carefully cut down the central line of the dial (along the cut here line) using the craft knife. Make sure the template is on a cutting mat or hard surface and make sure they are careful not to cut themselves.
- Take the template for the arm or gnomon. Cut out the shape of the gnomon and fold it along the line to firm a flap at the base.
- Insert the folded flap of the gnomon inside the slit you made in the main sundial template. Make sure the right-angle of the arm is in line with the bottom of the sundial (the point where all the lines meet on the template).
- Stick the bottom of the gnonom to the base of the sundial with tape to hold it in place.
- Take your class outside (on a sunny day!) with their sundials. Help your class to find north using the compass.
- Ask your students to place their sundials on a flat surface, and line up the arrows on the top of the sundials to point north.
- Ask your students to tell the time by reading where the shadow is cast on the flat dial.
- Visit a local sundial. Many cities offer trails of local sundials. See what is available in your area at Sundials on the Internet
Classroom activity – Understanding Map Projections
A globe is the most accurate way of representing the earth or the sky. However, flat maps are more convenient to use and to store. Maps of the earth or of the sky are also sometimes called projections because map-makers have needed to project a three dimensional surface onto a two dimensional surface in order to make them. Since a map is two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world, it is understood that most projections contain certain compromises to accuracy. Different maps, or projections, differ in their relative accuracy in depicting area, the shapes of objects, actual distances, and compass direction. A map-maker (or cartographer) may therefore choose to focus on the accuracy of one feature (actual distance for example), to the detriment of others (shape of land masses for example).
Make individual maps of the world with your class to illustrate the difficulties of projection and help them understand the difference between various projections.
You will need a globe (you can buy inflatable globes relatively inexpensively), marker pens, a knife, and an unwaxed orange for each student (or small group of students). You may also want some kitchen towel or wipes for sticky fingers.
Lesson plan/discussion points
- Show students the globe and explain to them that because the Earth is spherical, a globe is the only real way to accurately represent Earth in its correct proportions. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of globes. (Consider storage and transport, size, geographical detail shown and cost). Ask students to consider why we might choose to use maps instead of globes.
- Ask students if they can explain that while maps are very useful, they are not perfect as representations of earth, other planets or the sky. Explain that when a spherical object is made flat, there are often distortions in distance, direction, shape, or area that will mean that distances or sizes may not be entirely accurate.
- Give each student (or small group) an orange and a marker pen. Using the globe as a reference, ask students to find and mark, on their oranges, the locations of the North and South Poles, the Equator, some lines of longitude, and the major continents. These do not have to be perfect!
- Use a knife to split the skin of the orange, pole to pole. (You may prefer to do this for your students). And then ask students to use their fingers to peel the skin off the fruit trying to keep it as intact as possible.
- Once peeled, students should flatten their orange skins to create a map that is flat and readable. As students attempt to create their maps they will find that the orange skin stretches or tears. They may be able to choose where to tear or stretch the skin, but they should be aware that if they try to avoid tearing continents, they will unavoidably make changes to the seas and oceans instead. There is no way to avoid this distortion. This should help them to understand some of the difficulties that cartographers face when trying to make accurate, flat representations of Earth.
- Ask students to show their finished orange maps to the class. Discuss as a class the difficulties they encountered in trying to create an accurate map. Look at the way their maps look now, in comparison to how they did on the ‘globe’. Students should observe that it is impossible to flatten a curved surface without some stretching or tearing. Explain how this is also problem for cartographers, who, although using more complex methods, also need to make certain compromises (stretching, or compressing areas on their maps) to create a two dimensional image. Explain to students that there are several types of map projections that are used to represent earth, each with certain advantages and disadvantages. No one version is better than another.
- Discuss why different types of projection might be developed. Think about the different uses to which maps might be put. Think about airline navigation, sailors navigating the sea, or the calculations of companies such as oil refineries needing to lay pipes. What other uses can you think of?
- Finally, look again at a map of the world and at a globe. Ask students what they have understood about the term ‘projection’ following this exercise. Discuss their responses and look at various different projections on an overhead projector to illustrate the concept. Compare these projections looking for details such as relative distances between different elements and the shape and size of land masses. The GEOSTAC website has useful images and explanation of different types of projection to use.