From Darkness to Light: Shedding Light on the Universe

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 By Kevin Manning, Astronomer and CEI Trainer and Christine Mason.

What do your students and teachers know about “dark energy” and “dark matter?”  Do they know how much of the universe is composed of dark energy? Have they had opportunities to explore the vastness of space?  Do they know anything about the accelerated expansion of the universe? Have they investigated the big bang theory? Do they understand supernovae, exploding stars, and energy vacuums? If they were interested in these topics, where would they turn to learn more?

What tools do astronomers use to study dark energy, dark matter, and other phenomena?  Are there ways that students can gain experience with these or similar tools, perhaps even designing similar tools themselves?

The universe is expanding at an increasingly faster rate, and much of it we cannot “see.” Current explanations for this expansion gave rise to the terms dark energy and dark matter. Astronomers and other scientists even today are still formulating hypotheses about the expansion of dark energy and dark matter– the void between stars, planets, and galaxies. When trying to determine how important dark energy may be, it is critical to note that of all the mass-energy throughout the entire universe, dark energy accounts for nearly 3/4 of the total.  Do your teachers and students understand the ultimate significance of the substantial portion of the universe that is this dark energy and matter, particularly in light of the continuing expansion of dark energy?

Would your students and teachers have any ideas about where to begin to research dark energy? Could they design an experiment to replicate the expansion of the dark energy?  With a few simple tools such as a balloon and color markers, could they design a simulation?

At CEI we believe that introducing a few well-designed, hands-on activities could help lay the foundation for increasing student interest in the practical applications of math and science.  If we can spark the curiosity of young students, then by the time students are in middle and high school, they may be well on their way to developing and finding ways to research or test their own hypotheses, preparing them for future careers as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. And as importantly, by engaging them in researching complex issues such as dark energy, we may be advancing their critical thinking skills and helping to establish a life-long interest in learning.

Note: Kevin Manning is now collaborating with CEI to offer STEM workshops and technical assistance to schools and school districts.



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