Oak Parker Sally Laurent-Muehleisen, who is also an astrophysicist at IIT, is a bit frustrated. She explains, “As a professional astronomer, I am bothered by the fact that children’s books always show the moon up at night. The books never show the moon up during the day and rarely show a night sky without a moon, yet the reality is that half a month, the moon is up during nighttime hours and half the time it is up during daytime hours. Our modern society has lost the knowledge people had just a few centuries ago when it comes to motions of celestial objects like the Sun, moon and planets.”
She continues, “I want children to get back that knowledge, but I want them to do it as a scientist. Learning to ask and answer questions like a scientist helps everyone understand how science does and does not work. We all need to know that science is a process, but a self-correcting process. The model may not be absolutely perfect, but it sure has worked well. Just look at the technology we’ve developed over the last 100 years, all of which arose from basic science.”
Passionate about getting children to investigate the world around them the way a scientist does, Sally Laurent-Muehleisen developed a program with teacher Sandra Flowers, and has been working with all the 3rd grade classrooms at Longfellow School for many years through OPEF’s Science Alliance program as students study seasons and phases of the Moon.
Scientist Sally starts by asking kids to create hypotheses in answer to the question: How does the separation of the Moon and Sun in the sky change with time?
She teaches students to build astrolabes, a device ancient mariners used to measure the height of stars (particularly the North Star) above the horizon in order to navigate. They use cardboard, straws, string, a washer and tape, and then take measurements on two different mornings. Students make a series of “claims” backed by supporting evidence, until they come up with a conclusion to compare with their original hypothesis.
She tells them not worry about whether they will ultimately be proved right or wrong, the important thing is to make a prediction backed by a reason. “Scientists are wrong a lot more than they’re right,” she says. “In fact, scientists learn a lot more by being wrong than they learn by being right.”