The Gleaner

Valley teacher shares her passion for astronomy

On a regular Monday afternoon at Ormstown Elementary School, teacher Tabitha McKell enters the Grade 6 classroom carrying an exercise ball, a flashlight, and an assortment of mysterious items. The classroom chatter is silenced as the students wonder what is going on. Today, McKell is giving a presentation on the upcoming solar eclipse. The last total solar eclipse seen in this area was in 1932, and the next will occur in 2205. So, this is a big deal.

Discovering the stars

McKell is an amateur astronomer. She recalls how she was first inspired to look at the stars: “When I was a child, I went to visit my uncle Mike who lived in Manitoba. He showed me Jupiter with his telescope, and that was pretty amazing.” She adds, “He actually told me about the eclipse that is coming up.”

McKell has always loved scientific enquiry. For a time, she lived and worked in the Arctic. There, she visited the rugged and barren landscape of Devon Island, where the Canadian Space Agency has a Mars Analogy, a place that is similar to the surface of Mars. McKell visited Astronaut Canyon, a large crater that is used by both NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. “It’s a test site. They have greenhouses that are set up, and a big research centre.”


OES teacher Tabitha McKell demonstrates how the moon will cover the sun using an Oreo cookie PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois


This inspired her to do some research of her own. “I use an app called ‘The Night Sky,’ which is free and on my phone. I will often use that to find constellations in the sky, and to figure out the names of stars and planets.” She owns a small portable telescope that is quite powerful. “You can use it during the day. You can use it at night. It’s not an expensive telescope, but it’s a Dobsonian telescope,” which is a small lightweight instrument that allows optimum viewing of the stars. She explains that you really don’t need a large telescope to observe celestial bodies.

The Astronomy Club

This March, McKell started a lunch-hour astronomy club that will run until the April 8 eclipse. Although the object of this club was to inspire students to discover astronomy, she is also concerned with informing students about the hazards of looking at the eclipse without special solar glasses. She tells the students how her own mother has a blind spot in her eye that doctors suspect was caused by looking at the sun when she was a young child. This damage is called “retinal photochemical injury” or “solar retinopathy” and is not felt immediately, but it can be permanent. McKell explains, “During the eclipse, your pupils dilate because there is less light,” and if a person looks directly at the eclipse without eye protection, the rays will go to the back of the eye and burn the cells that interpret light. This can happen within minutes. McKell says that people who normally wear glasses should take them off to wear solar glasses, and special solar glasses should be worn throughout the entire eclipse. She also tells the children that “Taking any picture of the eclipse can also be dangerous.”


Students line up to create their own eclipse using a model PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois


The eclipse

Experiencing a total solar eclipse can be an exciting event. McKell demonstrates what happens using the flashlight and a handmade Earth and moon, showing how the moon blocks out the sun’s light, leaving only the aura of the sun’s corona. The eclipse will begin at 2:30 p.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. and she tells the students to pay attention to what happens around them during that time. “The animals will think that it is night. Birds will stop chirping for the entire two hours. Shadows will change to look like semi circles, and there will be a 360-degree sunset all around us.”

Aside from the eclipse, there are other things McKell encourages amateur astronomers to investigate. “Just looking at the moon up close, you can see craters from asteroids that have impacted the moon. You can see mountains. It’s amazing to get to know the moon.” She recommends that students get an app on their phone and just look at the stars during the day and night. She also recommends that they look up the Canadian Space Agency site online. “We don’t learn about astronomy in school; it’s not in the curriculum, and kids love it,” she says.

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1 Comment

Mike Attas 2024-04-04 at 09:25

I am SO PROUD of my niece Tabitha! –Uncle Mike


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