Why? How? When? And all that good stuff…

by Ellen H. Showell and Fred M. B. Amram

Women Invent in America

Why? How? When? And all that good stuff…


Teachers’ Guide

Teaching Suggestions for
Spirits of the North: The Aurora Borealis

      Article / Page

"When the Heavens Dance," pg. 6
  • The colorful, rippling lights of the aurora borealis result from the interaction of solar winds and the Earth’s magnetic field. Sidebars explain solar activity cycles (pg. 9), reveal the secrets of auroral ovals (pg. 10), and correct misconceptions about the northern lights (pg. 11).
  • Vocabulary, Inductive Reasoning
"Auroras: To See or Not to See . . . That is the Question," pg. 12
  • Seeing an aurora display requires luck, geography, and know-how. Sidebars reveal how to estimate the chance of success (pg. 13), what kinds of displays observers see (pg. 14), and how auroras affect human lives (pg. 15).
  • Vocabulary, Cause and Effect
"Catching Some Rays" (Activity), pg. 17
  • The appearance of an aurora depends on the observer’s point of view. Check out the possibilities with this exercise in spatial relations.
  • Following Directions, Experimentation through Modeling
"Drawn to the Lights," pg. 18
  • Human culture and history are rich with myths and legends about the aurora borealis.
  • Inductive Reasoning, Interaction of Science and Society
"Spirit Lights: A Tale of the Aurora Borealis," pg. 20
  • In this short story, a legend about the aurora teaches young Akna a lesson about life and love.
  • Folktale Interpretation
"Say ‘Cheese!’ — Cinematographer Robert Eather Films the Aurora," pg. 22
  • Follow the adventures of Robert Eather as he captures the aurora on film and brings it to an IMAX near you. A sidebar (pg. 25) explains how Hollywood movies and IMAX movies differ.
  • Cause and Effect, Process Analysis
"Shoot for Stills" (Activity), pg. 26
  • Follow these directions to take good still pictures of the aurora.
  • Following Directions
"Walrus Array" (Brain Strain), pg. 27
  • Take the challenge of the talking walrus and line up the numbered ice cubes as directed. A shivery challenge!
  • Following Directions, Pattern Recognition
"The Mystery of Auroral Sounds," pg. 28
  • Are sounds from auroral displays real or imagined? Some say that they do not exist, but others think that radio waves might be the source. Tune in on the Web to hear some for yourself.
  • Hypothesis Formation, Critical Thinking
"See the Northern Lights at Home" (Activity), pg. 30
  • Read the story of Norwegian physicist Kristian Olaf Birkeland, who generated a model of the northern lights in his laboratory. Then create a terrella of your own, using a television screen and a small magnet.
  • Following Directions, Deductive Reasoning
"Auroras on Other Worlds," pg. 33
  • Using Earth-based and orbiting telescopes along with images from spacecraft, scientists detect auroras on other planets in our solar system. They provide data about the composition of the planets and their atmospheres.
  • Vocabulary, Inductive Reasoning
"Tigermine," pg. 36
  • Writer Conrad Aiken captured an aurora in poetry.
  • Science and Literature
"Painted Black," pg. 38
  • Mysterious voids within the diffuse auroral glow are called the Black Aurora. They are regions where electrons are sucked from the ionosphere, completing the aurora’s electrical circuit.
  • Deductive Reasoning, Cause and Effect
"What’s Up and You Can Do Astronomy: Tracking Jupiter’s Moons" (Activity), pg. 40
  • Evening is a great time to catch elusive Mercury, along with Saturn and Jupiter. Mars and Venus appear in the morning. Follow in Galileo’s footsteps to track Jupiter’s moons (pg. 42).
  • Observation, Following Directions
"Fantastic Journeys," pg. 46
  • Jackson Caldwell, age 12, reports on his summer adventures at Astro Camp in Three Rivers, MI.
  • Methods of Investigation and Experimentation
Think Tank (Discussion Starters to Use Before Reading the Magazine):
  1. What do you already know about auroras? Make a list of all the facts you can think of about these atmospheric phenomena. Make a second list of things you would like to know. Review your lists as you read this issue, adding facts and answering questions as you go.
  2. What makes the aurora beautiful? Is there a connection between beauty and mystery? If we understood everything about auroras, would they seem less beautiful?
Classroom "Syzygy":     Talk, Connect, Assess
Pg. 6 – "When the Heavens Dance"
  • Talk It Over:
    1. The last sentence of this article describes the aurora as "electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and atomic physics working together." What part does each of play in creating the northern lights?
    2. Explain, step-by-step, what causes an auroral display. Begin with the sun’s magnetic fields and end with the lights seen by an observer on the ground.
  • Connections:
    1. Electronics: Find out how neon lights work. Compare them to auroras. Present your findings in diagrams and a written report.
    2. Visual Arts: Draw a cutaway diagram of the sun. Research and include in your drawing the layers of the sun. Include a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection. Make sure your drawing is correctly labeled.
    3. Creative Writing: Invent a myth to explain the aurora borealis. Write your story, being sure to include larger-than-life characters and a supernatural explanation for the glowing lights in the sky. Perhaps all class members can compile their myths into a book titled The New Mythology of the Northern Skies.
  • Student Assessment:
    1. Tell how auroras are created. In your explanation, include the following terms: coronal mass ejection, magnetic field, solar cycles.
    2. Pretend you are working at an astronomical research station in Alaska. Write a letter to friends back home, describing the beauty of the aurora and detailing the science that explains it.
pg. 22 – "Say ‘Cheese!’ – Cinematographer Robert Eather Films the Aurora"
  • Talk It Over:
    1. What problems did Robert Eather encounter in trying to film the aurora? How did he solve each one?
    2. Use the article and your own experience to explain how movie cameras work.
  • Connections:
    1. Art/Design: For an instant, a visual image is retained on the retina of the human eye. For that reason, still pictures shown in rapid succession appear to move fluidly. Use this knowledge to create a "fast-flip" movie of the aurora. Use a thick stack of scrap paper or the page edges of a discarded paperback book. Change the position of your images slightly from page to page, then fast-flip with your thumb to create a movie of dancing colors.
    2. History: Create a time line of advances in movie technology in the 20th century. Include Eather’s accomplishments in your time line.
    3. Language Arts: Pretend you are Robert Eather, rewatching today the first movies you made back in 1963. Write an entry in your personal journal, reflecting on what you have learned in the last 40 years.
  • Student Assessment:
    1. You are Robert Eather, and you have just been told to give up. You do not have the equipment to film the aurora, and you should pack up and go home. Reply to this advice in a letter, convincing your critic that you can and will film the aurora.
    2. Describe how a movie camera works. Explain how the images get on film and how the viewer perceives them as continuous motion.

Far Out!: Moving Beyond the Magazine (Name the auroras from the clues given. Check answers at the end. Continue the game by inventing additional fanciful auroral names and clues to share among class members.)

The aurora around the actor who plays Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Whole-Class Project: Return to the lists you made for "Think Tank." In a class discussion, add facts, correct misconceptions, and make a new list of unanswered questions. Head to your library and to the Web in search of answers.

The aurora surrounding the tiresome daughter of a deceased billionaire.

Small-group Collaboration: Set up a bulletin board for your school, describing auroras and leaving a space for the chances of seeing an aurora on any given night. Take turns maintaining the daily "Aurora Watch" entry, using the methods given in "Will I See Lights Tonight?" on pg. 13.

The aurora of a missing rose arbor.

Individual Project: Read aloud Conrad Aiken’s poem "Tigermine" on page 36. In your library or on the Internet, find other examples of poetry based on astronomical concepts. Plan a class poetry party. Ask everyone to share a poem about astronomy – either original or written by someone else. Decorate with an astronomical theme.

The aurora Yoda noticed when he wandered away from the marked path.

Community Connection: Collect anecdotes of auroral sightings from parents, family, and friends. Invite fellow aurora buffs to your poetry party.

ANSWERS: 1. Aurora Boreanaz. 2. Aurora Boring Heiress. 3. Aurora Lost Trellis. 4. Aurora Off Trail Is.

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Last modified: April 30, 2003