Colorado schools make plans to view — and teach — the solar eclipse

Students at Linden Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tenn., try eclipse glasses. (Chalkbeat file)

This coming Monday should be, by all accounts, a normal day of school. But for three hours, the planet will go dark — and Colorado teachers are seizing it as a teaching moment.

On Monday, as Denver Public Schools starts and students in other Colorado districts settle into the first few weeks of the school year, the moon will blot out regularly scheduled programming as the United States experiences a rare total solar eclipse.

From launching balloons to constructing “sun funnels,” science teachers across the country have big plans for the “Great American Eclipse.” Although Colorado does not lie in the so-called “path of totality,” our view shouldn’t be bad, either. 

The eclipse is expected to reach 92.3 percent totality over Denver from after 10 a.m. to around 1 p.m., and schools throughout the state are setting aside time for students to view it safely.

“There’s kind of a new push in science for what is called phenomenon-driven science education,” said Renee Belisle, the grade 3-8 science curriculum specialist for DPS. “Through understanding those events, we understand more of the world around us. Kids can observe this phenomenon and then they can start to generate explanations for why this happens.”

Several districts have ordered or received donations of solar eclipse glasses to help students safely view the phenomenon. Belisle said DPS received a donation of 20,000 glasses to distributed “as equitably as possible” among 93,000 students.

Jeffco Public Schools is urging its students to view the eclipse indirectly through pinhole projectors.

“We offered a strong recommendation to all of our schools to view the eclipse using an indirect method of viewing,” said Matt Flores, Jeffco’s chief academic officer. “As we all know staring directly at the sun is never a good choice. Those glasses, though they have a filter… can still do some damage to a student’s eye.”

Other schools are trying to immerse students in eclipse-viewing and related activities for the day. Students at several area schools, including Cherry Creek High School, will be taking field trips to Wyoming, where the eclipse will be visible in totality over a 67-mile swath of the state.

Belisle said one DPS elementary school is holding an all-day back to school picnic so students can be outside for the entirety of the eclipse.

Officials from most districts said they granted autonomy to schools so they could design curriculum and pick activities around the event that best serve their students. But they all expressed excitement to kick off the school year with the grand display of planetary science in action.

“We hope that it opens their minds up quite a bit more about the beauty of science,” said Richard Charles, Cherry Creek’s director of STEM and innovation.

Out of this World

Named for a renowned astronaut, this Colorado school took a break from classes to watch the solar eclipse

Students at Scott Carpenter Middle School take in the total solar eclipse. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Just minutes before the peak viewing window of the United States’ first total solar eclipse in 99 years, science teacher Randy Vanderhurst excitedly waved a model of Earth orbiting the sun before his class of 6th graders.

In his raspy, booming voice, he asked students — broken up into clusters labeled “Awesome” and “Brilliant” — to answer questions about how the eclipse works.

“Awesome, please tell Brilliant why you think the eclipse is going to move across the country,” Vanderhurst told his students at Westminster’s M. Scott Carpenter Middle School.

When the moment finally arrived Monday, hundreds of kids at Scott Carpenter flooded out the school’s back doors and onto a large field. They carefully placed their red and black Eclipse USA glasses over their eyes to examine the sun, which looked like a bright orange sliver through the lenses.

Echoes of “Whoa!” and “That’s so cool!” scattered across the field. One girl was more dismissive, suggesting it was all a waste of time.

Nationwide, people clogged parks and drove in throngs of traffic to get their best glimpse of the “Great American Eclipse,” which arced across the country from Oregon to South Carolina. To make the phenomenon a teachable moment, educators across the country prepared special lessons, projects and safety plans — and Colorado teachers were no exception.

Scott Carpenter Middle School had special cause to pay attention: It is named after a Boulder-born astronaut who became the second American to orbit the earth. The school has long emphasized planetary science in its curriculum, making the eclipse a must-see event for its over 500 students.

Principal Tom Evans said once a teacher drew the impending eclipse to his attention in July, he set to work right away securing “legit” eclipse glasses for everyone in the building to safely view the event.

Over the Denver area, the eclipse reached about 93 percent totality, making Scott Carpenter’s lawn a decent viewing spot.

“It’s pretty cool we don’t have to travel to see it,” said Manuel, an 8th grader at the school.

Jeff Sands, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science, said students did not seem to be testing their luck by starting directly in the sun, which during an eclipse could lead to permanent vision damage.

“You’ve got 30 kids in a classroom and it’s kinda hard to keep track of them all,” Sands said. “These guys seem to be pretty responsible, though. I’m pretty impressed they’re listening to us.”

After a little more than 20 minutes of viewing, Evans, the principal, started directing the meandering middle schoolers back to their classes. He said he felt the logistics went “smoothly.”

Once all the students returned inside, they settled in to write reflections on the eclipse, and where they hope to be the next time such a celestial event passes. The next visible total solar eclipse over the United States will come in 2024, when the 6th graders at Scott Carpenter will be seniors in high school, Evans said.

“Scott Carpenter was an individual who obviously at some point in his life looked up at the sky and drew some inspiration,” he said. “It’s only fair that we give these kids the same opportunity because who knows, this may have sparked their interest as well.”

bridging cultures

Centuries-old Ute Indian traditions find home in 21st century Colorado science classrooms

Students from a Fort Collins elementary school learn math through beadwork (photo by Eric Gorski).

Splayed on the marble floor, a group of fourth-graders arrange colorful strands of beads into a diamond pattern, mimicking the intricate beadwork of the Ute people.

This is part history lesson, part math lesson. The students from Zach Elementary in Fort Collins may not know it, but beading involves complex mathematics. Figuring out patterns and counting beads to make something beautiful — like the dazzling trim on a Ute cradleboard or the band of a hat — provide foundations for learning algebra and geometry.

That lesson, delivered Tuesday in the grand entry hall of the History Colorado Center in Denver, helped kick off a five-year initiative aimed at bridging cultures by integrating centuries-old Native American knowledge with Western science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The project, bankrolled by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, also will give Ute young people in Colorado and Utah hands-on field experience meant to inspire them to not only see the connections to their past but to pursue STEM careers.

“From a native perspective, we always talk about walking in two worlds,” said Ernest House Jr., executive secretary for the Colorado Commission of Indians Affairs, a project partner. “You walk in a native world and non-native world, with one foot in a moccasin and the other in a tennis shoe, and you have to balance those. This brings sort of the same approach to education.”

House is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, one of three federally recognized Ute tribes involved in the project. Colorado’s Ute population is concentrated on two reservations in southwestern Colorado.

History Colorado — the agency that oversees the state’s archives, museums and preservation efforts — won the grant after falling short a year earlier, working in collaboration with the tribes to develop all the materials and activities.

One of the core pieces is exposing Ute young people to fieldwork in archaeology and ethnobotany — the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious and other uses.

Organizers say Ute students will do archeological surveying at a gulch about an hour south of Grand Junction. They will traverse land, look for sites and record any that are found. Another group will travel to a plant-rich oasis in the San Luis Valley to study botany there. Tribal elders and other experts in the fields will be involved.

“We want Ute kids to not feel like STEM is ‘other,’ said Shannon Voirol, manager of exhibit planning for History Colorado. “There is all this STEM talk. ‘STEM, STEM, STEM.’ They have been doing STEM forever. Their families have been doing STEM forever. It is part of them. We want to really get that message through, so they do feel comfortable going into STEM careers and see themselves as STEM practitioners.”

The educational challenges facing Native American youth, many of whom live in dire poverty, are well-documented. Nationally, native youth post the worst achievement scores and the lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup.

In southwestern Colorado, Ute kids attend both public school and tribal schools.

Students on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in Montezuma County — near the Four Corners area — enroll in schools in the Montezuma-Cortez School District, House said. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, meantime, runs an innovative K-5 Montessori charter school that incorporates tribal traditions. Older students attend public schools in the Ignatio School District, House said.

The cross-cultural project also will involve science teachers in communities including Cortez, Durango and Bayfield, all of whom have worked on similar cultural exchange programs in the past.

Another goal is to expose the general Colorado student population to native knowledge — like the kids from the Fort Collins elementary school.

Karlee Maitland Gutierrez, a fourth-grade teacher at Zach Elementary, part of the Poudre School District, said she plans to incorporate what students learned about beading and other Ute practices into lessons that align with state academic standards.

With the grant money, History Colorado officials and their partners plan to develop “kits” of materials and activities for educators statewide, training for teachers, traveling programs and interactive online exhibits in which students can earn digital badges. Along with covering Ute knowledge on subjects such as beadwork and plants, the lessons will touch on the tribes’ engineering practices in building wood shelters, and sound amplification for music and dance.

The project’s aim is to engage 128,000 students, educators and experts in Colorado and Utah, officials said.

Other opportunities abound, said Liz Cook, an educator for History Colorado. Cook notes that much Ute STEM learning is family learning — mothers sharing plant traditions with daughters, for example, with knowledge being passed down from generation to generation.

“There is a lot of research in informal science education about family learning — looking at science and education as not just being in a classroom with test tubes, but how people cooking together builds science literacy, how doing gardening together builds science literacy,” she said. “So when we cook together, or are out fixing the car — that is a science or math learning opportunity.”

Read Chalkbeat’s recent special report on STEM education in Colorado