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Astronomy Foundations Through Art & Paper Plates (AFTAPP)

Workshop Synopsis

October 19-20, 2001

Cleveland, OH


Introduce program objectives and outline.


        Informed stargazing, related lore, and modern astronomical discoveries.  

In this program we observe star patterns and the movement of the stars, then make a model to explain those phenomena.  To the constellation observations we add associated lore or mythologies.  Then we study astronomical phenomena within those constellations that we have come to understand using modern instruments.

        Personal interpretation of specific constellations into artistic tile.  Participants will fuse the above three components into their respective interpretations of select constellations.  They will express this new understanding of the constellations by creating artistic tiles.

        IDEAS start-up program to be taken to classroom. 

Upon completion of the workshops, teachers will take the AFTAPP program back to their respective schools and integrate components of it into their regular teachings.

        Relevance of observational astronomy in context of current events.  The value of understanding celestial events in modern times is suggested.  For the October 2001 workshops, examples of worldwide interest include the beginning and ending of Ramadan, the position of the crescent moon and Venus just after Sept. 11, 2001, and the alignment of planets in the western sky in Spring 2002.

        Cycles theme in cosmology and in astronomy.  Related to the mythologies and ancient cosmologies of select constellations are recurring notions of creation, life, and death.  A parallel understanding of stellar evolution will deal with the cycles of star formation from clouds of gas and dust to a variety of stellar endings.


Observe star patterns and the overall movement of the stars.


Find select star patterns, individual stars, and planets


    • Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Taurus, Orion, Pleiades.  Seven stars form the Big Dipper, found low in the autumn sky.  Different cultures envision different patterns using the same seven stars.  Examples include the plough, the wagon, the celestial bureaucrat, the bear, the Egyptian procession, and the drinking gourd.  Imagining the dipper to contain water, we pour the water out in the direction of the end two stars, going about 5 times the distance of those two stars until we come to Polaris.  Polaris is clearly not the brightest star. 


From the urban site, light pollution typically mutes stars of the Little Dipper, leaving only Polaris and the end two stars visible in the pattern of a hockey stick.


Continuing from the Big Dipper through Polaris we come to the constellation Cassiopeia, in the shape of the letter W.


In the winter sky, to the south is Orion the hunter with three bright stars forming his belt.  Variations in star colors and star types can be observed in the red giant star Betelgeuse and the blue giant star Rigel.  Hanging from Orion’s belt is a sword which appears fuzzy, the site of the Orion Nebula.


Following the three belt stars down and to the left leads us to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.  Associated with it is the lore of the Dogon, who described a companion star nearby, when in fact the star Sirius is a binary star system, whose discovery scientists inferred by the minute wobbling motion of the primary star.  Egyptians, too, saw great significance in the star Sirius as its appearance before the sun presaged the annual flooding of the Nile.


Following the three belt stars up and to the right leads us to the reddish star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus of the bull.  Going further leads us to the stars the Pleiades, or the seven sisters, or the seven dancing brothers.  Toward the end of a horn of Taurus resides the Crab nebula, a remnant of a cataclysmic stellar explosion.


    • Polaris, Sirius 
    • Jupiter, Saturn, Venus 

Current and future positions of the planets are noted, including the Spring 2002 alignment in the western evening sky.


Note daily observations

        Apparent motion is circular around earth’s axis. 

        Some celestial objects rise in east, set in west. 

        North circumpolar stars encircle Polaris. 

Using the planetarium projector we speed up time to show the motion of the stars and planets, knowledge previous cultures gleaned from generations of stargazing traditions.  Because of the earth’s daily spin, all stars appear to rotate around Polaris, which conveniently resides fixed above the north pole.  Stars which are in the circle defined by a Polaris-to-horizon arc are called circumpolar stars, which are visible year-round. 


Stars beyond the arc encircle Polaris as well, but the appearance of that circle is broken by the ground.  That is, as a star sweeps out an arc further from Polaris than the Polaris-to-horizon distance, it too makes a big circle around Polaris, except the ground gets in the way.  Hence those stars appear to rise and set, in the east and west respectively.  As you look toward the south you see seasonal star patterns and the ecliptic, which is the domain of the zodiac, the sun, the moon, and the planets.


Note Seasonal observations

        Sky shifts easterly approximately one degree per day (360 degrees in 365 days). 

        North circumpolar stars are visible year-round.

        Stars toward the south are seasonal.


In a modeling activity, twelve participants stand in a circle around the room as if standing around a campfire.  The fire at the center is the sun, which is encircled by the earth.  Tilt the globe about 23 degrees.  Imagine a spike going through the axis and above the globe for an immense distance, ending at the star Polaris.  Again, Polaris is simply an unspectacular star that happens to be conveniently located above the earth’s north pole.


In the course of one year, the earth revolves around the sun while its axis always points in the direction of that distant star Polaris.  An observer on earth can see stars when she is on the night side of our planet.  The observer can look outward in the direction away from the sun, but can see neither beyond the bright sun or through the impeding earth underfoot.  Every day as the earth advances in its orbit around the sun, a new slice of sky appears to the east while a slice disappears to the west.  In 365 days the sky shifts 360 degrees, or roughly one degree per day, and the pattern begins anew.


Similarly with the campfire analogy, if a person were standing with her backside toward the fire, she could see stars toward the blackness away from the fire.  When warming her front side, however, the camper could not see stars beyond the fire because of the fire’s brightness (day), nor could she see stars below the horizon because the ground is in the way.  If the camper were slowly to walk around the campfire and to twirl, eventually after one revolution (one year)she would have looked outward from the fire in all directions and will have seen everything above the horizon.  Each step would yield a slightly newer view in the direction she walks.  New people in the periphery become visible away from the glare of the fire as she encircles it.


While walking around the fire, the camper could only see certain stars opposite the fire (sun) at certain parts of the walk; hence, the seasonal stars.  But throughout the entire walk around the fire, she could look upward toward the blackness over her head to see one common group of stars; hence the circumpolar stars.


Note ecliptic observations

        The sun’s annual path against the background stars defines the ecliptic.

        The planets appear to wander along the ecliptic.

        The constellations of the zodiac are along the ecliptic.


Return to the campfire model with twelve participants standing around the fire but in the distance, much further from the fire than the original camper (earth).  Those twelve people in the distance represent constellations of the zodiac (actually, there should be a 13th, Ophiuchus).  The planets—more campers warming themselves near the fire--revolve around the sun nearly in the same plane.  The constellations that appear as background stars to the sun—the ring of participants in the distance—are the constellations of the zodiac.  It is against that well-defined background of stars that the sun, the planets, and the moon appear; hence, the significance of the zodiac to ancient stargazers.



Integrate related lore and mythologies.

        Oot-Kwah-Tah, the Seven Star Dancers (Onondaga)

Eight boys who were ridiculed by their elders for wanting to have a feast for their children’s version of a medicine society bring food to their campfire.  The leader of the seven boys repairs a broken drumhead, which he beats to a group chant.  The elders hear the sound and seek its source.  Around the campfire they find the eight boys dancing, yet as the boys encircle the fire they dance into the sky.  One mother calls to her son who, upon looking back toward his mother, becomes a “shooting star,” or meteor.  The other seven boys continue to rise and are now the Seven Dancing Brothers. (Source: Keepers of the Night)


In Greek lore they are the Pleiades.  To Japanese storytellers the stars denote Subaru.  For the Bantu they are a plow, whose appearance after sunset suggests it is time for planting.  Per the Taureg, they are a flock of chickens.  The Masai envision cattle herded together.  And the Khoikhoi deem them the rain stars.  (Source: African Mythology Cylinder, Learning Technologies, Inc.)



The Dogon consider the three belt stars of Orion to be a staircase up to heaven.  To the Bushmen the three stars are a male zebra flanked by two female zebras.


The Dogon advocate that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, has two small  companion stars.  The creator god Amma, who made the sun and the moon, also made eight different seeds.  The smallest of these seeds is Po Tolo, or “deep beginning,” and is the embodiment of one of those two small companion stars.

(Source: African Mythology Cylinder, Learning Technologies, Inc.)



Per Egyptian lore, Osiris was the Lord of Everything.  In judging the soul of a Pharoah, the omnipotent Osiris rewarded a good life by aligning it with the stars in the west, which set at the end of a long journey.  Osiris punished a bad life by placing the soul in the north, among the circumpolar beasts who never find rest as they continually encircled the north pole.  (Source: African Mythology Cylinder, Learning Technologies, Inc.)




Make dynamic model of the solar system to explain the observed motions. 


Review constellation identification and mythologies.


Introduce Paper Plate Education

        Make paper Platispheres

        Predict motion of circumpolar stars


A planisphere is a device which reduces the sphere of stars down to a plane.  One can use the instrument to indicate the positions of the stars for any given time and date.  The Platisphere reduces a portion of the sphere of stars to a paper plate.  With the children’s version of the Platisphere a student can predict the evening position of the circumpolar stars for any season.  Construction techniques not covered in the AFTAPP workshop are available on the Paper Plate Astronomy video and on the Paper Plate Education website at http://analyzer.depaul.edu/paperplate.


Introduce modern scientific contributions framed in cyclical theme.


        M42, the Orion Nebula

stellar nursery

proto-planetary disks (protoplyds)

tools of astronomy, including HST


The Orion Nebula, or M42 (the 42nd item cataloged by early astronomer Charles Messier), is often labeled as a stellar nursery.  Shrouded within the immense clouds of gas and dust visible with the naked eye are embryonic stars.  Images from the Hubble Space Telescope show nodules larger than our solar system that are likely the beginnings of star and planet formations.  These proto-planetary disks are called protoplyds.


An analogy for the process of star formation suggests there is a center of gravity around which the dust and gas coalesce.  Imagine there to be a vacuum cleaner centrally located within a cloudy, gas-filled room.  The machine draws in nearly all matter to its bag, where it compresses gas and dirt together tightly.  When the gas and dust reaches a critical mass, it essentially “turns on” and becomes a star, fusing hydrogen into helium and releasing light and energy.  The star is born. 


Once that star “turns on,” it radiates energy outward and the vacuum cleaner’s role is altered.  As with any cleaning job, there are dust balls and grains of sand or dirt not vacuumed up in the first pass.  These leftovers not swept up from the cleaning process, which represent only a small fraction of the total mass originally in the dirty room, end up being the planets, moons, and asteroids that pervade space around the newborn star.  Earth is space debris.


        M1, the Crab Nebula, remnant of a cataclysmic supernova

Chinese observations

Anasazi observations

Powerful source of radiation at many wavelengths


Tools of astronomy, with emphasis on non-visible light


Chinese documents and Anasazi pictographs recorded a celestial event in the year 1054 that heralded the death of a massive star.  The new “star” that appeared in the constellation of Taurus the bull was so bright it could be seen during the daytime.  Subsequent study using modern instruments reveals a crab-shaped nebula expanding outward, the telltale aftermath of a supernova explosion.  If the demise of the massive star had occurred at the distance of our sun, it would have been 500 million times brighter than the sun.


Stars die through a variety of mechanisms, dependent mostly on how massive they are.  Small stars like our sun, an average size, have an unspectacular death  as they slowly enlarge to become red giant stars expelling outer layers of gas with a central leftover core.  A massive star can have a rapid, violent demise known as a supernova. 


A massive star performs a dance of equilibrium.  Gravity pulls inward while the explosive pressure of fusion radiates outward.  During the star’s life, those opposing forces balance out and the star achieves a particular size, akin to a balloon in which the contracting tendency of the stretched rubber is countered by the volume of air within it.  A round inflated balloon results.


Eventually, however, the star’s ability to withstand the relentless force of gravity is overcome when the star’s fuel “runs out.”  The star reaches a critical point where it can no longer fuse matter and thus the outward pressure stops.  At this juncture, gravity dominates and the star rapidly collapses.  When the star collapses to its core the matter rebounds in a terrific supernova explosion.  As an analogy, envision clapping two handfuls of sand together.  A dense core of sand is packed together in the middle, while a bunch of sand flies outward in all directions.


The Crab Nebula, named because it looks like a many-legged crab in early photographs, is also referred to as M2 (the 2nd item cataloged by Messier).  As new tools became available to study the sky, astronomers expanded our knowledge of the mechanism of stellar death.  Modern instruments detected copious energy radiating from the region of the sky in which the Chinese and Anasazi witnessed their day star.  At the core of the Crab Nebula is a spinning star that pulses (a pulsar) like a rapidly rotating searchlight. 


In photographs we see the expanding debris flung into space, while at the core of the nebula is the dense remnant of the progenitor star.  Yet death of the star begets new life.  Eventually matter from the nebula may collide with a cloud of gas and dust elsewhere in the universe, renewing the cycle of stellar evolution. 


Distribute additional resources.

        Paper Plate Astronomy video 

Additional copies can be purchased for $17.00 through the Paper Plate Education website.


        Paper Plate Education  website 

A portion of the AFTAPP grant is dedicated toward the construction and expansion of the Paper Plate Education  website at http://analyzer.depaul.edu/paperplate. Activities there include simple crafts that initiate discussions of celestial objects and space science; modeling activities that demonstrate the motions and scale of the planets and stars; and technical paper instruments that predict motions of the stars, moon, and planets.


        Cleveland Museum of Natural History 

The new Shafran Planetarium opens January 15, 2002.  Teachers can schedule programs for their group, including “Stars: From Beginning to End.”  The museum also rents out a portable, inflatable planetarium called a Starlab after a brief training session.  An accompanying resource guide includes mythologies, lesson plans, and supporting material for the African sky cylinder.

        African American Museum


Prepare for art component.

      After observing the stars under the real night sky, each AFTAPP participant should fuse the components of the program—informed stargazing, associated lore, modern astronomy—into her collective impression of what a particular constellation embodies.  She will express her impression of say, Taurus or Orion, on a clay tile that will then be kiln-baked.



AFTAPP is trial program.  Lessons learned from the evaluation process result in amendments or additions to the material.  The organizers will make supporting documents available to the teachers after the initial two workshops. 


Participants in AFTAPP shall take the basic components of AFTAPP back to their classrooms for evaluation.  Amy Southon serves as the evaluation liaison for each teacher so that the efficacy of this trial program can be judged. 


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