Learning about the science behind Aurora Borealis or northern lights! The Virtual Aurora Borealis Educational Pathway focuses on utilizing existing virtual resources from Arktikum Science Centre in Finland and Museo Galileo in Italy, to create a virtual educational pathway about the science related to the beautiful northern lights. A special attention is set on presenting the research of Galileo Galilei.
Student Learning Objectives:
The objective of the Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway is to provide the user/visitor with knowledge related to the science of northern lights and why we see them. The objective is to show the connection between the sun and the earth in relation to northern lights as well as present the history of science through the work of Galileo Galilei. It both gives the user factual knowledge about the sun, the earth’s magnetic field as well as the earth’s atmosphere.
The students will learn:
- What the northern lights are and why they have different colors. The northern lights are charged particles originating from the sun that collides with different gases in the atmosphere. The collision causes the particles to emit lights that we call northern lights or Aurora Borealis.
- About the atmosphere and its different sections. The Earth’s atmosphere consists of several different layers. Closes to earth is the troposphere, then stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere and the last being the exosphere. The northern lights are formed in upper parts of the atmosphere, in the thermosphere, 80km to 700km above earth’s surface.
- How the sun is affecting the Earth’s magnetic field and how the magnetic field is protecting the Earth. The Earth is surrounded by the magnetosphere and it is shaped due to solar wind with a long magnetotail on the night side of earth, the side not facing the sun. The magnetosphere shields the Earth from solar winds and cosmic rays. This magnetic shield is not impenetrable. The sun wind creates cracks in this shield and a small portion of the sun wind enters the Earth’s atmosphere through the polar cusps and produces the northern lights.
- Learn about the beliefs related to northern lights before science explained the phenomena. Before science could explain the northern lights, people created their own explanation based on their knowledge. These beliefs are especially found among indigenous people in the north and they are tied to the life and environment where the indigenous people lived.
- Learn about the history of science related to northern lights, especially about Galieo Galilei and his discoveries. Galileo Galilei was the first person to coin the term Aurora Borealis. He had seen the northern lights and tried to explain the phenomena. Interestingly, he used a special version of his telescope to study the sun and he was the first to see sunspots. He wrote about this, but never made the connection to northern lights.
From 12 years and up. The pathway is based on online resources. The pathway is open for all visitors with a main focus on school classes and students.
Schools, science centres and museums, lifelong learners and other individuals interested in expanding their understanding of northern lights and the intriguing science related to the phenomena.
The Virtual Aurora Borealis pathway will take 30-45 minutes. The pre-phase will take 45 minutes and the post-phase will take 45 minutes.
Connection with the curriculum
The Virtual Aurora Borealis Educational Pathway combines to be a multidisciplinary learning tool, through which one can include elements from several subjects. It represents multidisciplinary elements for STEAM-pedagogy.
The Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway fits well for the teaching of 21st century competences described as seven transversal competences in the Finnish National Core Curriculum overarching principles that guide all subject-specific instruction and must also be addressed through multidisciplinary learning modules.
In addition, the Finnish National Core Curriculum includes strong suggestion of “Phenomenon education” as one-week period. The Virtual Aurora Borealis Exhibition fits for this type of one-week timing.
This educational pathway follows an inquiry-based pedagogical approach, organised into 3 logical stages:
Teacher Support Materials
Useful resources, suitable for the age group of your students, are available at the “Teacher Support Materials” tab.
Guidance for Preparation
The Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway can be found on the Virtual Pathway webpage platform and on the webpage of Arctic Centre. The teacher (or other user) facilitating the visit, needs to enter webpage and to check the functionality, to be able to guide the students or other users. The virtual pathway contains the questions for the students to deliberate and/or to answer, with answers being provided back to the teacher. The visit to the Virtual Aurora Borealis webpages of Arctic Centre and can be done as a group on a large screen or individually from a personal computer. It can also be accessed from home or where-ever one is connected.
Click on the “Follow-up Activities” tab to find out more virtual pathways connected with the “Virtual Aurora Borealis”.
Setting the stage
- Divide the students into groups of 3-4 students per group. Show the students a set of pictures of northern lights and ask what they see? Focus on shape and color and ask them to write them down.
- Ask the students to invent stories of how the northern lights are generated and to rename the phenomena. Give them complete freedom to come up with the most incredible stories and name that is imaginable. Ask them to present the explanation and the new name to fellow classmates. Each class then votes for the best explanation or story.
- The idea with this pre-exercise is to start the Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway from a zero-starting point, to try to imagine how difficult this phenomenon is to explain if you don’t have background science. It also aims to provide an understanding of how recent scientific explanation has been able to explain the northern lights phenomena and why we have different beliefs related to northern lights.
The early scientific history of aurora borealis
- Ask the students groups how to go from beliefs about the formation of northern lights to finding out the science behind their formation. How would one go about to do research about northern lights? Where to start and why?
- Present the students with Galileo’s telescope and ask how a telescope could have been used to study northern lights? What would you study?
- Give each student group a compass and ask how does the compass relate to northern lights? What properties does the compass show that is important for explaining northern lights?
The connection and distance between the Sun and the Earth
- Show the class NASA Space place video: What is an Aurora? OR
- Show also the class Ted-Ed video by Michel Molina
- Draw on the chalkboard a circle with a diameter of about 70cm (exact 69,60cm). Next to it draw a small dot with a diameter of about 6,5mm (exact 6,37mm). These are representing the sun and the earth at the scale of 1:2,000,000,000. On this scale the sun and earth would be about 75meter apart (exact average being 74,80 meters)
- To show the students a similar scale model of the solar system, visit the solar system scale model calculator and put in model scale 1:2,000,000,000 and also the location of the school. This provides a map with the sun being the location of the school and the planets orbit being projected on the map around the school. Give the students a bead or pee to keep in their hand as reference of earth. https://thinkzone.wlonk.com/SS/SolarSystemModel.php?scale=2000000000&lat=66.302923&lon=25.432778&table=y&map=y&minmax=y
Galileo Galilei and his research
Galileo Galilei and the rotation of the sun
- Ask the students the simple question of how many days does it take for the earth to do a full orbit of the sun. Also ask how long does it take for the earth to rotate around its own axis. These simple questions are related to understanding how long it takes for the sun to rotate around its own axis.
- One of the big discoveries of Galileo Galilei was to create a method to observe sunspots. Up until his observations, it was regarded that the sun was unmoving. Through his work he found that the sun rotated around its own axis. Galileo also became convinced that instead of the Aristotelian view that the sun was going around earth, he declared that the Copernican system was correct, that planets were going around earth.
- Without understanding the implications for northern lights, Galileo was observing sunspots and the rotation of the sun. It is currently known that the sun rotates around its own axis during 27 days. Ask the students deliberate on what implications do sunspots and the sun’s rotation have on northern lights on earth?
Galileo Galilei and sunspots
- Galileo Galilei was one of the earliest scientists to observe sunspots. He was not the first one, but his contribution to understanding the sun and the solar system formed a foundation for how we understand the sun and the solar system today. He is regarded as the “father of modern physics”.
- Show the class the European Solar Telescope “The QuESt for Sunspots” video: and NutshellEdu’s “Galileo Galilei in a nutshell” video
Galileo Galilei and northern lights
- Interestingly, Galileo Galilei was the person to name the phenomenon of northern lights Aurora Borealis. He had observed the phenomenon and named it after the Greek goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the god of the north wind, Borea.
- Galileo was the first astronomer to try to make a scientific analysis of the northern lights’ phenomenon. He even created a machine using static electricity to create light that closely resembled northern lights.
- He did not succeed in explaining northern lights. He had the misconception that the northern lights were formed due to reflection of sunlight in the atmosphere.
Visit the Virtual Aurora Borealis
- Go to https://www.arcticcentre.org/FI/Arktikum/Tietoa-kouluille/videot
- Consult the additional resource “What causes polar lights?” (found at the Teacher Support Materials tab)
Navigate your class through the Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway
- Divide the class into 6 groups
- Give each group one topic to answer from the following list.
- What is solar wind/solar flares/Coronal mass ejection?
- Why do northern lights occur over the poles?
- What colors do northern lights have and why?
- Who was Galileo Galilei and how did his observations relate to northern lights?
- Why do we have different beliefs about northern lights?
- What causes the light in northern lights?
- The Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway is an Arktikum Science Centre webpage about better understanding the phenomenon of northern lights. It consists of videos made by teacher students about the different aspects of Aurora Borealis.
- The students are given the possibility to visit the webpage for a minimum of 30 minutes. The exhibition contains videos and texts. The students should enter virtual webpage by themselves or in a small group. The educational has a path to follow and each of the videos should be visited.
- The idea with the Virtual Aurora Borealis Pathway is to utilize the virtual and visual science centre knowledge provided through the science centre’s webpage, that can be remotely accessed.
- When visiting the webpage, each group/student should answer questions based on the pre-visit and what they see in the exhibition.
After the visit
- Give the students time to go discuss and to prepare their answer. Each group are then given time to present their answer to the rest of the class.
I. WHO WAS GALILEO GALILEI?
Born in Pisa on February 15, 1564, Galileo is considered the father of modern science for a number of reasons:
– the importance of his astronomical discoveries
– his intuitions about the motion of bodies
-his idea and ability to demonstrate experimentally the direct observation of phenomena
His life also inspired and fascinated writers and films directors because he is a symbol of the contrast between science and faith and between freedom of thought and political and religious authority.
Date: Sec. XIX
Materials: Oil on canvas
Title: Life of Galileo Galilei (this is a playlist of 11 short videos that trace the entire life of Galileo)
Image 2 (Reference here)
Title: Galileo Galilei observing the lamp in the Cathedral of Pisa
Author: Luigi Sabatelli
Setting: Florence, Museo di Storia Naturale – Sezione di Zoologia “La Specola” – Tribuna di Galileo
Galileo began his training in Pisa, where he held the chair of mathematics from 1589 to 1592 and continued in the same role at Padua until 1610. Very stimulating was the period the scientist passed in Padua “…where I consumed the eighteen best years of all my life”, as Galileo wrote in a letter dated June 23, 1640 addressed to Fortunio Liceti, to whom he suggested to take advantage of “…this freedom and the many close contacts that you made there.”
Image 3 (Reference here)
Title: Galileo and Viviani
Author: Tito Lessi
Materials: oil on board
Setting: Florence, Museo Galileo – Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Room VII
Dimensions: 410×410 mm
The revolutionary results of the astronomical discoveries realized by Galileo using the telescope did not go unnoticed. After a first denunciation in 1616, in 1632 the Court of Inquisition obliged the scientist to present himself in Rome. The trial condemned Galileo to recant his theories and to live isolated in his house near Arcetri. The following years were very hard on Galileo: his precarious health condition worsened with blindeness. He died in 1642, in the company of his disciples who had never abandoned him, like Vincenzo Viviani.
II. THE HISTORY OF GALILEO’S TELESCOPE
In the spring of 1609 Galileo came into possession of an innovative object that was sold in Venice as a toy: a short tube with two lenses at each end that allowed distant objects to be seen as if they were at a closer distance.
He was fascinated by it and set about perfecting it, quickly achieving very positive results. As early as November of the same year, he succeeded in making a telescope capable of magnifying 20 times, far more powerful than any other telescope circulating in Europe at the time.
In his hands, this “toy” became a scientific instrument destined to change the world. Galileo did not limit himself to proposing it exclusively for military use, but had the extraordinary idea of pointing it at the sky. A totally different universe from the one described by tradition was revealed to his eyes, reinforcing his conviction of the truth of the Copernican hypothesis.
Title: Galileo’s Telescope
Image 1 (Reference here)
Title: Galileo’s telescope
Maker: Galileo Galilei
Date: late 1609 – early 1610
Materials: wood, leather
Dimensions: length 927mm
Image 2 (Reference here)
Title: Galileo showing the Medicean planets (Jupiter’s satellites) to the allegories of Optics, Astronomy and Mathematics
Published in: Galileo Galilei “Opera”, Bologna, 1656
III. GALILEO’S ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
Galileo’s refractory telescopes consisted of a tube and two lenses: a converging lens as the objective and a diverging lens as the eyepiece. Despite its limitations due to an extremely narrow field of vision and the spherical and chromatic aberrations caused by the lenses, which greatly disturbed vision, Galileo was able to make revolutionary observations by using them. He discovered that the Moon had Earth-like valleys and mountains; that the Milky Way was not a denser part of the heavens, but an impressive array of stars; and that Jupiter was surrounded by four satellites. These discoveries were illustrated in The Starry Messenger.
Later he observed the strange appearances of Saturn, which seemed to be made up of three bodies, and the sunspots.
Title: Gaileo’s Astronomy
Image 1 (Reference here)
Title: Sidereus Nuncius
Author: Galileo Galilei
Published: Venice, 1610
Setting:Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale
IV. GALILEO AND HIS OBSERVATIONS OF SUNSPOTS
In 1611 in three letters written to the banker Mark Welser, the Jesuit mathematician Christoph Scheiner, under the pseudonym Apelles latens post tabulam, announced that he had discovered a “new and almost unbelievable phenomena”: sunspots. Since the Sun, according to Aristotelian tradition, was perfect and incorruptible, according to Scheiner, the spots must have been celestial bodies which, being between the Earth and the Sun, gave the illusion of being on its surface.
Galileo Galilei in 1613 took a different position on the subject and wrote Scheiner three letters of reply that were collected and printed in Rome by the Accademia dei Lincei, with the title Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari e loro accidenti.
This work contains 38 engravings by Matthaus Greuter based on drawings of the Sun made by Galileo depicting the positions and shapes of the spots. These depictions of Galileo’s various telescopic proof supported his firm conviction that sunspots were contiguous to the solar surface.
Title: Drawings of the sunspots observed by Galileo Galilei on 27 and 28 June 1612
Author: Galileo Galilei
Date: ca. 1612
As early as 1610, Galileo observed spots on the Sun, undermining both Aristotle’s theory of the immutability of the heavens and the conception of the Sun as a perfect star. According to Galileo the sunspots were “neither wandering, nor fixed, nor stars.” Nor did they “move around the sun in separate circles distant from it” but rather formed and dissolved continuously on the sun’s surface. These meticulous observations also led Galileo to draw evidence and theorize that the sun rotates at a uniform speed around its own axis.
Title: Simulation of the operation of the helioscope
V. GALILEO AND THE AURORA BOREALIS
Many do not know that the phenomenon of the northern lights is amongst Galileo’s celestial observations. In some parts of his work titled “Il Saggiatore” which focused on the theme of comets discussed with Jesuit priest Orazio Grassi Galileo writes about “… vapors that represent the unexpected aurora borealis that light up sometimes presenting themselves to us as a bright cloud…” Galileo himself found the word “aurora borealis,” to evoke the name of the Greek goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the god of the north wind, Borea.
VI. THE STUDY OF AURORA BOREALIS AFTER GALILEO’S TIME
Galileo was one of the first astronomers who tried to make a scientific analysis about the northern lights phenomenon and by the end of the 18th century scientist tried to “reproduce” it to better understand its origins using static electricity machines like those belonging to the Lorraine family collection found on Museo Galileo’s second floor. Among the “attractions” used during these scientific salons and public events organized by the middle and high middle class of the time are instruments that formed or created a light closely resembling that of the aurora borealis.
Title: Electrical Aurora
Image (Reference here)
Title: Aurora tube
Date: late 18th century
Materials: mahogany, glass, brass
Dimensions: total height 580mm
Setting: Florence, Museo Galileo – Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Room XI
VII. A Concise Introduction to Aurora Borealis
Available both in English and Finnish, this well-designed resource will help you introduce your students to the beauty and science behind Northern Lights.
To get the full PDF file, click here.