September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Celestial Highlights for February 2014

Posted: Monday, February 3rd, 2014

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller

February Skies: Jupiter and the Dog Star dominate the dusk. Brightening Mars gleams from late evening until dawn, when Venus takes the reigns.

February 2014 at dusk:

The two brightest “stars” at dusk in February are steady yellowish Jupiter, high in east, and blue-white vigorously twinkling Sirius, the Dog Star, in the southeast. The only other evening planet is Mercury, very low south of west, but it fades to first magnitude by Feb. 7 and very sharply thereafter, on its way to conjunction with the Sun at mid-month. The waxing gibbous Moon, four days before Full, appears near Jupiter on the evening of Feb. 10.

Surrounding Jupiter is the huge Winter Hexagon of Sirius-Procyon-Pollux-Capella-Aldebaran-Rigel. The noticeably red star Betelgeuse is also within the Hexagon. Find the 3-star belt of Orion, the Hunter, midway between his shoulder, Betelgeuse, and his foot, bluish Rigel. The belt extended southeastward locates Sirius. Extend the belt in the opposite direction, bending north a bit, and you’ll find Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull. Go farther to find the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a wonderful sight for binoculars! Rising in the eastern sky, Regulus, heart of Leo, is at opposition to the Sun on Feb. 18, and chases the Winter Hexagon across the sky.

February 2014 at dawn:

This month, Venus attains the peak brilliance of its current morning apparition, which began in mid-January and continues until September. Telescopes and even binoculars reveal Venus as a crescent, backlit by the Sun. Find Venus before sunrise, keep track of it, and you’ll have a daytime sighting! It’ll be especially easy on Feb. 25 and 26, when the crescent Moon appears nearby.

For most of February, in morning twilight, you can observe three planets: Venus in SE, Saturn in S, and Mars in SW. In the last days of Feb., there are four planets once Mercury emerges from its Feb. 15 solar conjunction on near side of Sun into the ESE twilight glow. Backlighted Mercury is faint at first, 2nd mag. on Feb. 23, brightening to first mag. by Feb. 27 and continuing to brighten in March. Look for these bright stars, also within the zodiacal belt: Antares, heart of Scorpius, to upper right of Venus and lower left of Saturn; Spica near Mars; and Regulus, heart of Leo, in W, far to lower right of Mars and Spica. In latter half of February, the waning Moon in the morning sky will pass all of them, in order, west to east: Regulus, Spica, Mars, Saturn, Antares, Venus, and Mercury. (See diagrams from Sky Calendar.)

Other bright stars at dawn are Arcturus, high above Mars and Spica in the SW sky; and the Summer Triangle of Vega-Altair-Deneb climbing in the eastern sky. Brightest objects visible at morning mid-twilight at start of Feb., in order of brilliance, are Venus, Arcturus, Vega, and Mars. The red planet nearly doubles in brightness from mag. +0.2 to –0.5 and clearly outshines the zero-mag. stars Arcturus and Vega after mid-Feb.

On Feb. 11 the revolution of Spaceship Earth around the Sun is carrying us toward Saturn. A week later on Feb. 18, Earth passes between Sun and Regulus, and that star appears at opposition, 180° from the Sun. On Feb. 28, Earth is heading toward a point near Antares in the predawn sky (and away from a point near Aldebaran in the evening sky). On April 8, Mars will take its turn at opposition as our planet passes between that planet and the Sun. On May 10, Saturn will appear at opposition, and within three weeks later, on May 30-31, Antares will be at opposition and be above the horizon nearly all night.

Sky events in February and early March 2014 and beyond

Don’t miss the chance to provide your students with impressive telescopic views of Venus, while it still appears in crescent phase. Venus will appear half full, but smaller in size, when it is near greatest elongation, 47° from Sun, in late March. Venus switched from the evening into the morning sky during the second week of January, as it passed inferior conjunction, nearly between Earth and Sun. Venus is bright enough to observe in daytime morning hours while you’re at school. The planet appears brightest in mid-February, when telescopes and even binoculars reveal it as a crescent, about one-fourth illuminated.

The three bright outer planets all glide from dawn to dusk visibility during the early months of 2014, as the Earth overtakes them. During the transition, the planet appears at opposition, about 180° from the Sun, and is visible all night: Low in eastern sky at dusk, high in the southern sky in the middle of the night, and low in the western sky at dawn. This year, the dates of opposition of the bright outer planets are: Jupiter on Jan. 5, Mars on Apr. 8, and Saturn on May 10.

Don’t miss the total lunar eclipse on the night of Monday-Tuesday, April 14-15.

Mercury will have its best evening apparition of this year during May.

Following is a sample of the visually most striking sky events during February and early March 2014. Diagrams of these events appear on the Sky Calendar, published by Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. For more information about the calendar, point your web browser to

Before the end of April, a complete Sky Calendar for May 2014, along with a star map of the evening sky, will be available at the same website. May 2014 will be a great month for sky watchers, because the three bright outer planets as well as the innermost planet, Mercury, will all be visible at dusk. There is a good chance of a very strong meteor shower, possibly even a meteor storm, in the predawn hours of Saturday, May 24, during the Memorial holiday weekend.

For free, simplified monthly sky maps following the first-magnitude stars and the naked-eye planets at morning and evening twilight accompanied by descriptive notes, and for many other charts and activities for students, go to

Check that site now and then for additional postings.

For illustrations of the following events, refer to diagrams in this article, and to the February and March 2014 issues of Sky Calendar.

Feb. 6-8, one hour after sunset: Watch Moon pass Aldebaran, Hyades, Pleiades.

Feb. 10 & 11, one hour after sunset: Watch Moon pass Jupiter, Pollux, Castor.

Feb. 19 & 20, one hour before sunrise: Watch Moon pass Mars, Spica.

Feb. 21-23, one hour before sunrise: Watch Moon pass Saturn and Antares.

Feb. 25-27, 45 min. before sunrise: Watch Moon pass Venus and approach Mercury.

Feb. 28, 30 min. before sunrise: Watch for very thin Moon rising to lower left of Mercury. Binoculars help. If you spot the Moon, note the time and calculate how much time remains until New Moon at the start of March 1 at 12:00 a.m. PST.

Mar. 1, one hour before sunrise: Find Mars and Spica in SW. Mars passed near Spica on Feb. 3. Watch Mars retrograde past Spica in coming weeks, and pass it a third time in July. The event is an example of a triple conjunction.

Mar. 1, about 25 min. after sunset: Using binoculars, try to see a very thin, young crescent Moon, very low, just south of due west. If you spot it, note the time, and calculate the Moon’s age, or time elapsed since New Moon, which occurred at 12:00 a.m. PST earlier today.

Mar. 3, one hour before sunrise: Saturn begins retrograde to upper right of Antares and to east (left) of Alpha in Libra. Watch Saturn move 7° west (closer to Alpha Librae) from now until mid-July, when Saturn ends retrograde.

Mar. 4, about 45 min. before sunrise: Mercury 20° lower left of Venus.

Wishing you and your students clear skies!

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.