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Students enjoy their moment in the sun

Kristen B. Morales

August 23, 2017

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As patiently as they could, the first-graders in Emily Sprayberry's class at Winterville Elementary sat on their spots at the head of the class and waited.

Between wiggles and giggles, they watched while Sprayberry navigated the NASA eclipse website, displaying the sun's position. It was 1:30 p.m. on the day of the solar eclipse, and the graphic showed a dark bite being taken out of the corner of the sun.

"When we looked at it earlier, you could see that it was completely round. Now we'll see what it looks like," she said, as the kids lined up to have eclipse glasses placed on their heads. The teachers, including volunteer Kandice Hooper, a third-year early childhood education major, used rubber bands to keep the glasses around the children's heads and asked them to push them up as they walked through the halls and out to the playground. Outside, Sprayberry had her students sit down, pull their glasses down and look up.

"Whoa, I can really see it!" exclaimed one student after Hooper helped him adjust his glasses.

"It's fun to just watch them enjoy it. I wasn't expecting students this young to be this excited about it," said Hooper, who was among a class of University of Georgia College of Education students, led by doctoral students Sung Eun and Stephanie Yagata, to help teachers with the unique viewing experience.

Hooper and the others joined a team of science education students from UGA who also spoke to classes on more scientific aspects of the eclipse and offered kids the chance to "talk to a scientist" during the event.

Eclipse events around Athens launched around 1 p.m. on Monday, including gatherings at elementary schools across Clarke County. Thanks to a fundraiser organized by the College of Education, students in every school, as well as several in surrounding counties, received eclipse-viewing classes and could safely watch as the moon crossed the path of the sun, giving Athens a near-total eclipse. Temperatures topped 90 degrees as students began to gather across playgrounds at the start of the eclipse, but by 2 p.m., the temperature had dipped, and the sun's brightness slightly dulled.

"It looks like a banana!" yelled one student as they focused on the tiny orange dot in the sky. "I saw an astronaut!" cried another.

Anna Lee Atwater, a fourth-year early childhood education major, was helping another class of first-graders with their glasses as the moon moved over the mid-point of the sun. It was about 2:15 p.m., and the students could now see more of the eclipse's effects. Not only were the orange suns viewed through their glasses getting swallowed by a black circle, but the light around them was shifting. Shadows under trees took on a filtered, crescent shape.

"They're loving it. I think it's really cool to be able to tell the kids what's happening," said Atwater. "It's cool to get to see this, and also that we get to come and be with them."

Nearby, doctoral students Eun and Yagata were experimenting with ways to project the sun's shape onto the ground or inside a box. The shoebox projector they made wasn't working so well, but the sun's projection made through a cardboard camera was visible on a piece of paper.

"It looks like a little orange, and it's getting eaten by something," remarked one third-grader as she sat with her class. It was about 2:30, just minutes from maximum coverage, and all the Winterville Elementary classes had found spots on the playground.

Some, like the fourth-graders, were spreading out on sheets in their own corner. Others were in smaller groups looking up in unison. As they stared at the sun through their eclipse glasses, they realized that they could watch the moon slowly overtake it.

"It looks like it's getting more skinnier! It is! Really, really skinny!" exclaimed another third-grader as dusk seemed to settle over the playground.

The kids began to murmur among themselves, and teachers began to cheer. Principal Donna Elder called out on her walkie-talkie that this was it—the big moment. "It's like it's 9 o'clock!" another student called out.

But just as quickly as the eclipse closed in, suddenly, the light began to change again. The dim coolness that had covered the playground began to shift, and the students realized that, now, the bite was being taken out of the left side of the sun.

Slowly, they folded up their glasses and filed back into the school. Within minutes, the sun's brightness had fought back, bathing the school in full sun again. UGA students walked in with them, a hush over the lines as they walked back to their classrooms and prepared to go home.

"This has been really amazing, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Denika Nickeo, a third-year early childhood education major who was helping with a first-grade class. "These kids are going to remember this for the rest of their lives, and I'm so happy we get to share this with them."