Astronomy instructors sometimes struggle with how to teach complex theories in a laboratory setting. This is especially true for an introductory class composed of mostly non-science major students. Gadsden State Community College instructor, Brian Geislinger, devised a model star system in the lab to show his students how professional astronomers gain much information just from the light that is projected from across the universe.
“When I began building models, I wasn’t sure if the experiment would work the way I intended, or if the sensors would be sensitive enough to detect the changes in the light,” Brian said. “But the setup worked out beautifully.”
The model solar system was set up with light bulbs placed in an enclosed wooden box. With this setup, students were able to gather data using a Vernier LabQuest and Light Sensor over a relatively short period of time. The light bulbs dimmed and brightened at varying speeds and intensities in order to mimic the light patterns of Cepheid variable stars, supernovas, and rotating planets. “[The students] watch the motors swinging artificial ‘planets’ around their light bulb-powered ‘Suns,'” Brian said. “And you start to see another set of light bulbs going off.”
Brian Geislinger is a 2010 NSTA/Vernier Technology Award recipient for his lab entitled “Understanding the Significance of Light Curves.”
Planet is illuminated from the side while the Light Sensor records reflected light off of varying light and dark patches on the surface of the planet as it rotates.
Students describe different features of the resulting graph and determine periodicity of the rotation from the analysis. The sensitivity of the Vernier Light Sensor is excellent for studying these small variations. Note that the maximum illumination only reaches approximately 15 lux.