Honors Astrophysics Students Collaborate on a Project Internationally

During each quarter in Upper School Science Teacher Ellen Kruger's Astrophysics class, students complete an individual observation project where they have the opportunity to choose from eight different project prompts. One project, where students are tasked with measuring the size of the Earth, would prove to be the most difficult to accomplish during the coronavirus pandemic due to travel restrictions—but that didn't stop four of her students: Kyrie Yang ‘23 (pictured left), Nora Elliott ‘23 (pictured right), Chad Cai ‘23, and Theo Xiong ‘22.

The activity calls for students to follow in the footsteps of Eratosthenes, a Greek astronomer of the third century BC. Eratosthenes' method involved observations of the Sun on a specific day (the summer solstice); however, our students instead used the fixed position of the star Polaris. In order to complete this particular activity, data would need to be taken at different locations hundreds of miles apart or more—which is typically perfect for students who are traveling for the holidays, or making college visits.

"Since there's less travel this year I thought folks might not choose this," shared Ellen. "However, two different pairs of students asked if they could work with each other—one student of each pair is in China and one is in the US. This resulted in two projects where students worked together from China and Philadelphia."

Collaborating thousands of miles and many time zones apart, each student constructed their own low-tech, cardboard-and-straw astrolabe—an angle-measuring instrument marked in degrees with a pivoted pointer—and recorded the location of the star Polaris (the North Star). They then shared data and calculated the true value of the size of the Earth. 

We love to see our SCH students thinking outside the box, working together, and showing creativity in the time of COVID!

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