Perservering at the National Science Teachers Association

By Charles Fulco

Last month I attended and presented at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national conference in Nashville, which just happens to be the largest city within the path of next year’s totality. I was excited at this educational trifecta opportunity: a chance to visit “Music City,” and take in all the entertainment, food and history that Nashville offers; to present at a national teaching event and talk with science teachers who will witness a total eclipse; and to visit Nashville’s Adventure Science Center and Vanderbilt University’s observatory.

My first day at the conference started optimistically but ended frustratingly: armed with solar glasses and information to distribute to my peers, I chose to attend workshops that focused on: a) science literacy techniques, b) using social media to promote science, or c) learning how to submit scientific articles for publication. All were good workshops, and I made some useful contacts, but when approaching teachers afterward to discuss TSE2017 with them, I got many blank looks and replies of “I had no idea there was an eclipse coming to this area.” At that point, I knew I’d have to get into serious outreach mode over the next several days in order to generate significant awareness among my colleagues.

By the end of Day 1, I resigned myself to the fact that virtually all the science teachers made contact with that day were not aware of the eclipse, and—worse yet—some didn’t even seem to care. It’s one thing to talk to the general public and get mixed reactions and uninterested replies, but when it comes from one’s own peers, that was difficult for me to accept. My thought was, “if they don’t know (or care), how will their students?” Obviously, some work needed to be done on Day 2.

Packing more solar glasses, my Coronado solar scope, stickers and a short video on my phone, I set up shop in the large common areas of the Music City Center, a vast space with over 10,000 teachers on hand. That seemed to work well, thanks to free handouts and a sunny day, where many teachers took a few seconds to directly and safely observe the Sun with both scope and glasses. As with students, nothing gets more reaction and interest than a hands-on lesson!

Feeling much better about things, I visited the vendors area and stopped by to say hello to the Celestron folks, where I traded my freebies for a door prize ticket. And what a door prize I won—a brand new Evolution 6 telescope and tripod! I promised them right there that it would accompany me on all my outreach trips over the coming months (I kept my promise—it saw first light this week at a local event with students observing the Sun through the scope and learning about eclipses).

By the time of my presentation Saturday morning, things were definitely looking up, and by the time my workshop ended, my classroom of teachers accompanied me outdoors to view the Sun, at which point many more passers-by joined us. Not one pair of glasses was left, cards were exchanged, and many more teachers now know what to expect next summer, and how to prepare themselves and their students for TSE2017.

My last day in Nashville was spent at the Adventure Science Center and its Sudekum Planetarium, where I was invited to take part in an afternoon sky-show. I distributed the last of my solar glasses to the visitors (again, as with the NSTA teachers, there was virtually zero eclipse awareness among the public as well). After that, I stopped by Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory, atop a hill overlooking the city. The director, Rocky Alvers, and his staff were wonderful and thorough hosts, showing me the many instruments and artifacts (some from the 19th Century and earlier) on view. One fascinating stop was the “camera obscura” cave, where sunlight let in from a small hole atop the earthen dome focused a 360-degree inverted image of the surroundings onto the darkened walls of the cave. The good news from this visit: The Dyer is very much on top of the eclipse and will be doing solid outreach over the coming year.

As I was flying home, I realized the point of this experience: don’t let an initial feeling of frustration or disappointment get in the way of instruction and outreach. If I had let my feelings from Day 1 persist, not nearly as many teachers would be aware now, so don’t ever give up!