Exploring the Heavens – Week 1

On Tuesday 3 May I attended the first week of my new course on astronomy at Sydney Observatory. The course is titled ‘Exploring the Heavens’ and is led by Dr Paul Payne. The structure of the course is as follows:

  1. History of Astronomy
  2. Celestial rhythms
  3. The solar system
  4. The stars
  5. Telescopes

So the course started with Dr Payne’s two hour version of the history of astronomy in the Sydney Observatory 3D theatre. Some of the main figures covered included:

  • Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)
  • Claudius Ptolemy (~140 BC)
  • Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543)
  • Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601)
  • Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630)
  • Giordano Bruno (1547 – 1600)
  • Galileo Galilee (1564 – 1642)
  • Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
  • Edmund Halley (1656 – 1742)
  • Charles Messier (1730 – 1817)
  • William Herschel (1738 – 1822)
  • James Bradley (1693 – 1762)
  • Friedrich Bessel (1784 – 1846)
  • John Adams (1819 – 1892)
  • Jean Le Verrier (1811 – 1877)
  • Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

Dr Payne kept the pace moving pretty quickly to cover all of these historical and important figures and more about the ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Renaissance as well as advancements in mathematics, engineering and technology.

Dr Payne also used his homemade 3D graphics to help demonstrate certain themes and concepts, including retrograde motion of planets, constellations and the movement of the moon and planets from Earth’s point of view. The graphics were great and they certainly enhanced the presentation putting us firmly in the cosmic realms.

I was surprised at how important astrology was in ancient times and how seriously it was taken to predict future events. People were also very superstitous and heavenly objects played an important role in how people lived their lives, including Roman emperors. It is also amazing at how much people knew about the solar system hundreds and thousands of years ago without even the aid of a telescope.

IMG_2648.JPG

As well as learning about the history of astronomy Dr Payne gave us a tour of the night sky on what was a beautiful and clear evening in Sydney. Some of the notable objects we spotted were: Mars, Jupiter, Alpha Centauri, Sirius, Betelgeuse, as well as some notable constellations.

Jupiter-planet

The final part of the evening involved us moving to the south dome of the observatory to use the telescope to view the night sky. We were lucky enough that the sky was clear from clouds and we were treated to an amazing view of Jupiter and the Galilean moons Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto.

IMG_2640

Image of the telescope in the south dome of Sydney Observatory.

This telescope is the oldest working one in Australia and was built in 1874 by Hugo Schroder in Hamburg, Germany. An interesting article about the telescope can be found here.

This was actually my first time looking through a telescope and the view did not disappoint. I was amazed by how clear Jupiter appeared, being able to clearly identify its white zones and brown belts, both of which are cloud systems with winds that blow in opposite directions. The Galilean moons, although tiny, were very bright and also so clear to see. This is exactly what I had been hoping to see and has just added more fuel to my growing love for astronomy.

Looking forward to week 2!

Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy Design Project

Earth’s twin: No oxygen, no water, scorching temperatures and a runaway greenhouse effect. What else do we know about our closest neighbour, Venus?

Arizona State University’s AST111

Introduction to Solar System Astronomy

Design Project evidence

Learning objective

Describe the origins, structure, contents, and evolution of our solar system.

Project goal

“Venus favours the bold” – Ovid

Describe the planet Venus, how it became so hot and examine the scientific impact resulting from the many missions to Venus, otherwise known as Freya’s planet.

venus.jpg

Image courtesy of http://www.space.com/images/i/000/044/599/original/venus-surface-magellan-spacecraft.jpg

Venus fact file

  • Second planet from the Sun, 67 million miles apart (0.72 AU)
  • Second brightest object in the night sky, behind the Moon. Venus’ clouds are highly reflective, making it shine bright in the night sky
  • Named after the Roman Goddess of love and beauty
  • Has no moons or rings
  • Spins very slowly in a clockwise direction (retrograde rotation), backwards to the other planets in the solar system. Backwards spin is probably due to a cosmic collision early in its history
  • Venus is very nearly a perfect sphere, thanks slow rotation!
  • 80% size of Earth, similar mass and both rocky worlds
  • Hottest world in our system, 480 degrees celsius on the surface, hot enough to melt lead
  • Runaway greenhouse effect. It is thought Venus used to have oceans but due to extra heat from the Sun these oceans evaporated and the water vapour trapped more heat in the atmosphere warming the planet further, trapping more heat until the oceans were no more
  • Has a cratered and volcanic surface
  • 1 year on Venus is equal to 225 Earth days, and 1 day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days – making a day last longer than a year on Venus
  • Atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide (~96%), Nitrogen (~4%)
  • More than 40 spacecraft have explored Venus

Venus in culture

The Venus de Milo is ancient Greek statue created between 130 and 100 BC. It depicts Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, known as Venus to the Romans. It is on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris.

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n2

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. This book published in 1992 has sold over 50 million copies around the world. It states that common relationship problems between men and women are a result of fundamental psychological differences between the sexes because they are from ‘different planets’.

menarefrommars

Beyond Apollo – Barry M. Malzberg. A novel about a 2 man mission to Venus which is aborted and when the mission returns to Earth the captain is missing and the other man cannot explain what happened to him. The novel tries to get to the bottom of this mystery and overall it represents humanity’s incompetence at the enormity of space exploration. The book is listed as in development on IMDb so look out for a motion picture soon. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2403823/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1)

beyond apollo

For a twin planet, Venus is very different to Earth

4 billion years ago Venus was thought to be a lot like Earth, with evidence pointing towards Venus supporting bodies of water (H2O), perhaps even oceans. However, 4 billion years ago the Sun was less powerful that it is today and was only 70% as bright. Over time as the Sun became much hotter any bodies of water on Venus evaporated and water vapour was driven into the atmosphere, causing major greenhouse changes. Water vapour can trap heat, acting as a blanket around a body. At the top of the Venus atmosphere water molecules were split into hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O), under the full intensity of sunlight and ultraviolet rays. Much of the hydrogen (H) escaped into space whilst the oxygen (O) combined with carbon to form carbon dioxide (CO2), a great absorber of heat. Oxygen also bound with sulphur (S) and created sulphur dioxide (SO2) which created droplets of sulphuric acid (H2SO4). Could this runaway greenhouse effect ever happen here on Earth?

Venus atmosphere

The Venus atmosphere is extremely dense and hot. It is mainly composed of carbon dioxide with clouds of sulphuric acid, which gives Venus its yellow colour. It does rain sulphuric acid, but drops never reach the surface due to the extreme heat. The thick atmosphere traps heat and the tremendous amount of carbon dioxide adds to the runaway greenhouse effect on the planet. The weight of the thick, dense atmosphere creates enormous pressure on the surface of 90 times heavier than standing on the surface of Earth. The equivalent pressure on Earth is about 1 km beneath the surface of an ocean. The atmosphere is slowly being stripped away by the solar wind, a million tonne per second stream of material coming from the Sun. About 300 kg of the atmosphere is being lost every day from Venus.

Internal structure

Venus has an iron core approx. 3000 km in radius. This is similar to all terrestrial planets because of the effects of gravity, causing heavier material to sink to the middle of the planet whilst lighter material floated to the top. Venus does not have a magnetic field as it rotates too slowly.

InteriorOfVenus

Image courtesy http://astronomy.nmsu.edu/tharriso/ast105/InteriorOfVenus.png

Missions to Freya

Over 40 missions have explored Venus. The first craft to land on the surface was Venera 7 and was actually the first craft to land on another planet, after 15 failed missions. This Soviet mission in 1970 successfully landed on the surface and was able to send back 23 minutes worth of data, including a surface temperature reading of 475 degrees celsius and a pressure reading of 90. Not a very pleasant place to be!

venera_7_capsule-browse_732X5201

Image courtesy http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/venera_07/galleries

There is presently an active Venus mission called Akatsuki. The goal of the mission is to study weather patterns, confirm the presence of lightning in thick clouds and search for signs of active volcanism. This mission suffered a huge blow early on in its mission when thrusters failed to fire and the craft ended up on a journey around the Sun rather than Venus. Over the next five years JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) tested the various thrusters and came up with a strategy to fix the craft and send it back to Venus. To do this they dumped fuel from the broken thrusters and used the secondary control thrusters to orient the probe towards Venus. This happened in December of 2015 and the probe entered the orbit of Venus as originally planned.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 12.07.30 PM.png

Image courtesy http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galleries/space-tourism-posters

Magellan – mapping the surface of Venus. Launched in 1989 by NASA, the Magellan deep space orbiter was designed to map the surface of Venus down to a resolution of 120 to 300 metres. On 15 September 1990 the craft began to send high resolution radar images of the surface  clearly showing signs of vulcanism, tectonic movement, surface winds, lava channels and pancake shaped domes. During its first cycle it mapped 83.7% of the surface returning 1200 GB of data, an incredible amount at that time. After the second cycle it had mapped 96% of the surface and the third mapped 98%. Contact with the probe was lost on 12 October 1994 after it had plunged into the atmosphere to collect further aerodynamic data.

Magellan findings:

  • 85% of the surface is covered with volcanic flows
  • Complete lack of water
  • Extremely slow erosion process
  • Surface features persist for hundreds of millions of years

ESA goes express to Venus in 2005! The ESA sent the Venus Express to Venus in 2005 with the primary goal of studying the atmosphere. This was the ESA’s first mission to Venus and it was named Express due to the quick time the mission took to prepare and execute.

Artist_s_concept_of_lightning_on_Venus_node_full_image_2

Image courtesy http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2007/11/Artist_s_concept_of_lightning_on_Venus

The magnetometer (MAG) on board ESA’s Venus Express detected wave signals that show evidence of lightning in the atmosphere.

Major achievements of Venus Express include:

  • Discovery of a shape-shifting southern solar vortex. It can take almost any shape indicating complex weather patterns due to centre of vortex being offset to geographical pole
  • Evidence of recent volcanism, perhaps in the last few thousand to ten thousand years

venus2.gif

Double volcano on Venus. Image courtesy http://astronomy.nmsu.edu/tharriso/ast105/Ast105week08.html

A ten-fold increase in sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere has led scientists to question whether volcanos are still active today.

  • Venus’ rotation is slowing down, found by comparing data collected by the Magellan mission. Features monitored by Express could only be lined up with Magellan if the length of a day on Venus is on average 6.5 minutes longer than when Magellan tracked the same features
  • Discovery of a cold area 125 km above the surface where snow or ice could exist. The temperature of -175 degrees celsius means the carbon dioxide can freeze
  • Detection of a thin ozone layer approx. 90 to 120 km above the surface, far higher than on Earth where ozone exists at 15 to 50 km above the surface
  • Water loss due to splitting of water molecules in upper atmosphere by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. The process creates two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom which are carried into space by the solar wind. Venus does not generate a magnetic field which can protect its atmosphere from the solar wind
  • Discovered mean wind speed of 400 km/h, an increase of 100 km/h over the 8 year mission

venus pancake domes.gif

Pancake domes on Venus. Image courtesy http://astronomy.nmsu.edu/tharriso/ast105/Ast105week08.html

Images from the surface – Venera 13. On 1 March 1982 Venera 13, a Soviet mission, set down on the surface of Venus and began relaying data back to Earth. It was able to transmit data for 127 minutes, far longer than the expected 32 minutes before the craft was crushed and melted by the extreme pressure and heat on the surface of Venus. It successfully relayed the first colour pictures of the surface of Venus, something previous missions had failed to do. It sent 8 panoramas showing fields of orange-brown rocks and loose soil. Soil analysis showed soil similar to terrestrial leucitic basalt with high potassium content.

Venera13Camera2

Image above shows Venus surface.

Future Venus missions?

1. The clockwork Venus rover. The solution to Venus landers not lasting longer than 2 hours could be a clockwork lander with no electronics. To send messages back home it would record data on a phonograph and then loft it on a balloon to rendezvous with a spacecraft overhead. (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23030693-600-our-top-5-wacky-nasa-missions-that-might-just-happen/)

The phonograph is a machine invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. It is a machine for recording sound on tinfoil coated cylinders. It has 2 needles, one for recording and one for playback. It is incredible to think that over one-hundred year old technology could be used to explore the solar system today.

2. Can sound help us detect ‘earthquakes’ on Venus? (http://www.astrobio.net/topic/solar-system/venus/can-sound-help-us-detect-earthquakes-on-venus/)

Researchers are planning to deploy an array of balloons in the atmosphere of Venus that could detect seismic activity on the surface using sound. A team of experts at the Keck Institute for Space Studies began thinking of ways to use infrasonic observations to get a better look at the geological dynamics of Venus. If we can get a better idea of the seismic activity on the planet this can tell us more about the history of the planet and its interior.

Escape velocity of Venus

During the course the mathematical labs have not been my strongest area, but I have learnt so much from attempting the challenges, something I really enjoyed doing. I would like to finish with a math problem I can do – the escape velocity of Venus. So here goes…

What is the escape velocity from the Venus exosphere, which begins about 220 km above the surface?

mass = 4.867 x 10^24 kg

radius = 6.05 x 10^6 m

height = 2.2 x 10^5 m

Formula:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 2.16.56 PM.png

= 2 x 6.67 x 10^11 x 4.867 x 10^24 / (6.05 x 10^6 + 2.2 x 10^5) = 1.03 x 10^8

v = sqrt (1.03 x 10^8) = 10148 m/s = 10.1 km/s ~ 10 km/s

Please check the math and let me know if I have made a mistake along the way.

Watch BBC The Sky at Night Venus documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82fS9C9koxU for more information.

Finally…

Huge thanks go to Dr Frank Timmes for being an outstanding teacher during this course, your videos and notes were amazing, thank you sooo much! You have inspired me to learn more about the universe. Big thanks also go to the rest of the team at Arizona State University for putting together an amazing course and for all their support. This has been the best course I have enrolled in on edX and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in astronomy.

https://courses.edx.org/courses/course-v1:ASUx+AST111x+2161B/info

Thanks for reading, bye bye!

venus hipster.jpg

5 Earth facts to celebrate Earth Day 2016

5. Earth is a terrestrial planet meaning it has these characteristics compared with Jovian planets:

  • Smaller size and mass
  • Higher density of rock and metal
  • Solid surface
  • Closer to the Sun
  • Warmer surface
  • Few moons
  • No rings

pale blue dot

4. Earth’s continents used to be one giant super-continent called Pangaea that existed around 200-300 million years ago.

pangea

3. Earth’s atmosphere is mainly nitrogen, followed by oxygen. So we breathe the second most abundant gas in our atmosphere.

2. If the Earth didn’t spin we would have nasty 200mph winds that blow from the tropics to the poles and back again. Our rotation, and the Coriolis effect, causes 3 convection cells per hemisphere that diverts air flowing north-south to east-west. Air is transported from hotter regions to cooler regions.

coriolis

1. Earth’s atmosphere formed after the world was created. The 3 sources of our atmosphere are:

  • outgassing
  • evaporation
  • surface ejection

We got our deposits of gases and liquids during the era of heavy bombardment during which asteroids and comets brought gases to Earth in frozen form. These were then deposited into the body of the planet.

3e9cd53e4f977e71dba20239d9412286

5 cool facts about our planets…

5. Venus rotates in the opposite direction to Earth so the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east. It also rotates very slowly so its days and nights are very long.

venus-7

4. The ‘no atmosphere’ temperature of Earth is 3 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius). Without the Greenhouse Effect our oceans would freeze over.

Greenhouse-Effect-diagram

3. Saturn is light and fluffy enough that its density is less than 1 gram per cubic centimeter – the density of water. So Saturn would float if placed in water.

2. Jupiter’s coloured bands are different cloud systems. The white stripes are called zones and the brown stripes are called belts. The winds in zones go one way, winds in belts go the other way. When you see different colours on the Jovian planets you are actually seeing clouds at different heights.

93241-004-10D698FD

1. Earth’s surface gets repaved every 100 million years. This is due to volcanism, tectonics and erosion. Large craters on Earth have been paved over.

plates copy

Top 10 Solar System facts so far…

10. The total number of stars in all the galaxies is comparable to the number of dry sand grains on all the beaches on Earth. There are about 100 billion galaxies and the total number of stars in all those galaxies is about 1000 billion per galaxy.

9. We are always in motion:

  • We spin around Earth’s axis at 1000 km/hr
  • We orbit the Sun at 100,000 km/hr
  • Our solar system moves randomly at 100,000 km/hr
  • Our solar neighbourhood orbits the centre of the Milky Way at 1,000,000 km/hr
  • Our galaxy moves randomly among our local group of galaxies at 300,000 km/hr

8. The Earth wobbles like a spinning top. The path the wobble carves out is called precession. It takes approx. 26,000 years for the Earth to complete one top wobble.

top

7. Solar eclipses happen because of coincidence. The Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon, and the Sun is also 400 times farther away. These 2 factors are such that the Moon can completely overlap the Sun. In the distant past the Moon used to be a lot closer to the Earth so eclipses were not possible. Also, the Moon is slowly drifting away from Earth at 1 cm per year, so in the distant future it will be too far away to block the Sun.

6. The names for the 7 days of the week come from the 7 known objects known to change their position: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The names come from the Norse-Celtic barbarians that overthrew Rome.

  • Sun-day
  • Moon-day
  • Tiu (Mars) – day
  • Woden (Mercury) – day
  • Thor (Jupiter) – day
  • Freya (Venus) – day
  • Saturn – day

barbarians2

5. Astronauts orbiting the Earth are weightless because they are continuously falling toward the Earth, not because there is no gravity. There is plenty of gravity in space. Astronauts and the ISS are continually falling, but they never reach it, that is why they are weightless.

4. The human eye was the first astronomical detector, however, it can only detect 1 in every 1000 photons. Astronomy’s newest detector, the Charge-Coupled Device (CCD), captures 1 in every 1.1 photons.

3. The Sun contains about 99.9% of the total mass in the solar system.

sun

2. Our solar system formed from the gravitational collapse of a large cloud of gas and dust. This theory is called Solar Nebular theory. As the cloud collapsed is flattened out into a disk. Our young protosun is at the middle of the disk, where the temperature is hotter than the outside. This determined the difference in the types of planets that formed, rocky terrestrial planets on the inside and gas giants on the outside. When the Sun finally turns on strong solar winds burn away left over material from the disk.

1. The Apollo 11 mission boot prints on the surface of the Moon will remain for around 200 million years due to the lack of erosion, due to very little atmosphere on the Moon.

a11foot

Year 5, MARS & STEM in Term 1

What an awesome term of STEM we had in year 5! The main objectives were to learn about the planet Mars, space missions to Mars, the role of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the people that work there, discover if humans could live on Mars and what life would be like there.

So, lots of talk about lots of my favourite things: space, Mars, NASA/JPL, Adam Steltzner, The Martian, amazing technology, science and engineering, really inspiring stuff.

JPL_Logo

As well as the main learning objectives I had planned at the start of the course, some extra opportunities arose to fit into the busy schedule to enhance the course further. March 14 was Pi Day and I planned a special lesson with help from a great resource I found from the NASA website called Planet Pi. I adapted the lesson slightly for year 5 and they coped with some new and tough maths admirably. This lesson highlighted how NASA scientists use Maths in their jobs to learn about planets and other celestial bodies. I explained the maths and formulae clearly and used some great visuals to help the girls understand the maths and why it was needed. I loved the example of using Pi to explore a planet, this was such a great lesson!

pi_infographic_2014-640

Another great lesson we had this term, and which was a complete and unexpected surprise was the Skype with Andrea Boyd, an engineer with the European Space Agency. Andrea lives in Germany and was good enough to stay up late at night to speak to all of year 5 at 9am Sydney time. Andrea spoke about her education and career in the space industry, which was very interesting and inspiring for our young girls. Our students prepared some great questions to ask Andrea about space, the International Space Station, astronauts and more. Our girls did a great job, were beautifully behaved, very polite and engaged with this brilliant, young, Australian woman. We learnt so much about space and how astronauts live and work on the ISS. This was a really exciting lesson which everyone enjoyed! Big thanks go to Jackie Slaviero, founder of One Giant Leap Australia, for putting me in contact with Andrea and then for sending me an amazing pack of goodies from NASA.

esa

The students seemed to love our STEM lessons this term. Space is such an interesting, exciting and inspiring topic for young and old, and I was so pleased with how they engaged. I love the questions they ask, they are so curious and what to learn everything. As well as learning about Mars we learnt about black holes, the Earth and Moon, the ISS, the speed of light, galaxies and more. We could quite easily study space for the whole year, and I gladly would.

Next term… students continue their STEM journey to Mars when they work in engineering groups to design and build their own Mars rover, based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), aka Curiosity. Curiosity has been a common theme throughout the term and I talked a lot about it when I talked about JPL engineer and EDL team leader for Curiosity, Adam Steltzner, a really inspiring speaker.

Adam-Steltzner-pose

His TED talk ‘How Curiosity changed my life, and I changed Hers’ is one of my favourites.

We also looked at rover facts and a great video called ‘7 minutes of terror’ which details how the rover made it from the top of the Mars atmosphere travelling at 30,000 mph to the surface travelling at a few mph in just 7 minutes. Another must-see video!

Like I said, I could teach this topic all year and not get bored! I used this video for an Edpuzzle.com which included some questions about the EDL of Curiosity. A great resource for incorporating video into classes.

Students produced some wonderful work including ‘Selling Mars: selling land on Mars’ advertisements and a ‘NASA profile’ of an inspiring NASA scientist they found from the website We Are The Martians.

So next term… engineering groups, specific roles for each girl in the group, designing and making a Mars rover, making wheels and incorporating LittleBits electronics to make the rover move, engineering guide with project milestones, evaluations, presentations, creativity, teamwork and fun!

Let’s hope ours will look better than this one!

costumeelizabethb-561x600

Pluto, polygons and Sphero

Today’s Sphero lesson with my two year 4 classes focused on coding Sphero to trace polygons on the floor. Students were not very familiar with polygons and some of the other terms in the lesson, however, during the starter it was evident that some girls had some knowledge, enough for the lesson at least. Students were just about to learn about polygons in their maths class so this was a nice introduction.

So, a polygon is a 2D shape with at least three straight sides: triangle (3 sides), quadrilateral (4 sides), pentagon (5 sides), hexagon (6 sides), heptagon (7 sides), octagon (8 sides), nonagon (9 sides) and decagon (10 sides).

GEOM_L15_EightPolygons

To help set up the lesson and relate the learning to a real-life, STEM scenario I used a great article from NASA called ‘The Polygons of Pluto’. This blog article by Katie Knight, an undergraduate student at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Katie works with the New Horizons team to help map some of the unusual terrain on Pluto, seeking patterns and estimating sizes and shapes of some of its unusual features.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 9.17.07 PM.png

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 9.16.47 PM

This fascinating article talked about the work Katie does to study the geological features and ‘chaotic terrain’ of the surface of dwarf planet Pluto. This also raised an interesting discussion of what is a dwarf planet and why was Pluto downgraded from a planet to a dwarf. This BBC article provides a nice explanation of why Pluto was downgraded. The image below also states the requirements to be classified as a planet.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 8.53.23 PM.png

I love lessons where I can relate the learning to space, and this was a great example. We talked about how NASA scientists use knowledge of polygons to study the surface of planets to try to discover what the terrain is made from, how big it is and how it formed. They also look for patterns that they try to match with other planets that could help unlock more clues about our solar system. Young girls are curious about space and mentioning NASA always seems to engage young minds. One day some of these girls could be working for a space agency such as NASA and perhaps they could even be coding robots on far away celestial bodies like planets and dwarf planets. This lesson could have gone in so many directions and we could have explored much more about space and NASA, but time limitations meant we could not venture too far into deep space. Perhaps a flipped activity here where students look for polygons on other celestial bodies, how many can they find, what shapes can they discover?! Example below is Eros, an asteroid famous for its close approaches to Earth.

eros

After describing how Sphero moves using a 360 degrees heading system it was time to start coding some polygons. We started with a square and moved onto a triangle. Some groups absolutely flew with the challenges and were able to complete them quickly. When they completed the challenges they moved onto extension tasks, including coding Sphero to display different colour lights on each side of the shape and coding the shapes in reverse.

Observing the groups at work is interesting. Some girls just want to play for the first few minutes while others start the challenge immediately and can’t wait to finish and show the teacher. However, all girls are engaged, all girls are participating, all girls are collaborating and communicating, all girls are problem-solving and using technology constructively. Using Sphero and an iPad means girls are not staring at screens the whole time, they are actively using technology by using a small robotics device that they love to make move and follow. They are active and mobile coders.

In the lesson girls learnt about polygons, Sphero heading, how to find the angle needed to draw any polygon, how NASA scientists use amazing technology to explore distant bodies and search for certain shapes and the information they can get from them. For me this lesson definitely ticked the STEM box many times over.