The Total Eclipse: An Eye-Opening Experience

Darrell Vincent is an engineering and physics teacher at Bullitt East High School in Mount Washington, Kentucky. Darrell serves as the Science Department chair and is a PLTW Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) Master Teacher. Darrell earned the honor of Bullitt County High School Teacher of the Year 2010-11 and was recognized as a semifinalist for Kentucky Teacher of the Year 2010-11.

What happens when teachers become facilitators of learning? Students enjoy coming to class, persevere through failures, and exceed even your highest expectations.

This has become my experience as a PLTW Engineering teacher.

Last May, I met with my rising senior Engineering Design and Development (EDD) students and proposed a field trip to view the total solar eclipse in Kentucky.

About 10 years back, I went to a training led by Mr. Rico Tyler of Western Kentucky University and left with designs on PVC telescopes. My students found those plans on the internet, reverse-engineered the one I made, created 3-D models in Inventor, and made innovations to improve upon the design. One of the students created a mount for the telescope with gears attached to a handle that could be used for fine-tuning the elevation of the telescope. This design was 3-D printed and incorporated into the original design.

The students also found plans for a sun funnel and created it with an oil funnel and a shower curtain. The funnel allowed the telescope to project an image of the sun on the shower curtain during the eclipse. The projection of the sun even had enough resolution to show sunspots.

From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Aug. 12, the students built their telescopes.

They divided the work by splitting into two teams. The build team created an assembly line manufacturing process to create the telescopes. The CAD team remained in the classroom, working on assembly files and working drawings.

Fourteen students traveled to the eclipse area on Aug. 19 and set up camp, practicing the use of the telescopes and team building.

On Aug. 21, the group traveled to the viewing area just south of Bowling Green, Kentucky, for two minutes of totality. The students viewed and documented the total eclipse with their devices and cameras.

This is an example of facilitated learning, as students found a passion and went beyond my wildest expectations.

Here are just a few of the quotes I received from students:

“When the moon fully overlapped the sun, the bright white outline made everyone gasp in awe for a moment and could be heard for miles. That moment will be remembered forever.”

“The eclipse and the process of going and seeing it made it a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget.”

“I was amazed by the darkness and how the crickets were convinced it was night. I thought about how somebody would have felt 1,000 years ago.”

“When the moon took over the sun and only the small ring remained, I thought about how far I had come and how I have grown. I thought about how when I came into high school, I didn't know where I wanted to go or who I wanted to be, but in those couple of minutes it all came together and made sense. I didn't know who I was or what my future would hold, and up until the eclipse, I still didn't. Standing there looking up at something so amazing helped me figure it all out. It made me realize so much, and I couldn't be more grateful for having the chance to experience it."

As Assistant Principal Kari Stewart noted, “Watching the students’ reaction to the moment of totality was as amazing as experiencing the eclipse itself!” 

I wish I had words to articulate the entire eclipse experience. I keep trying to burn the image of the experience into my mind because no picture can really do it justice.

I was in awe of the reaction of these students and the fact they were willing to work on this project outside of school for so many hours, as well as the fact that they work so well together even though they have very diverse interests and backgrounds.

The growth of students over four years in the PLTW Engineering program is just as amazing as the total eclipse, and it is why I continue to have a passion for this curriculum. There is another eclipse in seven years, and we are already talking about going again.

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