Reaching kids with “The Big Eclipse”

Those who are convinced that the stars do not affect our lives might wish to consider the story of Elaine Cuyler. Up until recently, Cuyler was minding her own business and working as marketing manager for Eola Hills Wine Cellars just west of Salem, Oregon.

“I never dreamed I’d be working on a kids’ book, let along one on eclipses,” Cuyler said. But that’s exactly what happened. When she learned that the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 will cross right over the vineyard, she decided an eclipse-viewing event would be a great way to attract visitors to the winery. As she researched the eclipse, it occurred to Cuyler that kids would really enjoy viewing a total solar eclipse.

“There was really no-one else talking to kids about the eclipse at the time,” she said. Out of that realization Orbit Oregon was born, and Cuyler became its chief eclipse officer. She teamed up with Nancy Coffelt, a well-known author and illustrator from Oregon, to create the book The Big Eclipse (Orbit Oregon, 2016).

“Although I had this concept in mind, it’s really Nancy’s drawings that brought it to life,” Cuyler noted. They also created a kids’ activity book; you can read our review of both, posted last month. Cuyler said there are a couple of purposes behind The Big Eclipse.

“First, I thought it was a great opportunity for kids to learn about astronomy and science and see something really cool,” she said. Secondly, she noted that adults often don’t know what’s going on, either. Her mother was a teacher in Portland during the 1979 total solar eclipse; they were told not to look up, and broadcasters ran public service announcements warning of the dangers of looking at the Sun. While it’s true that proper eye protection is needed to look at the partial phase of a solar eclipse, the warnings amounted to a missed opportunity.

“The concept of a solar eclipse is something that a lot of people aren’t familiar with,” Cuyler said. “That’s why there’s a lot of information [in the book] for parents, too, because they need to learn about it just as much as the kids.”

Providing inspiration

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the kids.

“We felt that as soon as you can get kids interested in science the better,” Cuyler explained. “Maybe they’re not going to want to sit and listen to a lecture, but they do like crafts, they all know about the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. To get kids thinking about the world around them and how it functions, that’s really the start of getting them to think about why the world works the way it does, and you use science to explain that.”

As Cuyler and Coffelt worked on The Big Eclipse their research included talks with astronomers and folks from NASA who looked at their material. They also spoke with many people who had seen total solar eclipses, including one couple who had viewed 15 of them.

Greg and Elaine

Seattle Astronomy writer Greg Scheiderer, Orbit Oregon’s Elaine Cuyler, and The Big Eclipse. We thought it was fun to get a selfie in front of a sign that reads “Choose your own adventure.”

“Their feedback was so great because they shared photos with us and video footage, they told us about the different things that happen,” Cuyler said. “Talking with people who’d actually been through these was invaluable.”

They’ve already test-driven the book in school classrooms, and the kids seem to enjoy it, especially the part where they get to create and make a drawing of their own eclipse myths, just as ancient civilizations tried to explain this celestial phenomenon. Cuyler said the kids are creative and funny with their stories. Her own eclipse myth is a little more figurative.

“It would probably be the book completely eclipsing everything else in my life!” she laughed.

It’s a lot of work getting a book out there. The Big Eclipse is available on the Orbit Oregon website (which also features eclipse glasses and viewers) and Amazon.com, and it is being carried by a growing number of retailers. Cuyler is busy trying to get it into libraries, museums, schools, and summer reading programs, too.

What’s next?

As for the future of Orbit Oregon, Cuyler said The Big Eclipse is really all about the 2017 total solar eclipse, so the book sort of expires after next August 21. But she and Coffelt are considering other books, including volumes about solar eclipses in general, astronomy, and other science topics.

“We had so much fun doing this and we met so many great people that we may extend that,” Cuyler said. “Right now, we’re just focused on the eclipse.”

And on the kids. Cuyler hopes The Big Eclipse gets kids, especially girls, interested in science. When you mix in art and literature, you can grab their interest early.

“If you’re looking at science from an art perspective and crafts activities you can really start young,” Cuyler said. “It appeals to kids, and they’re learning while they’re enjoying the little story that they’re reading.”

Out of that story, and out of seeing a total solar eclipse, can come inspiration. They’ve heard many tales of science teachers who started on their career path when they saw an eclipse as a child.

“That’s what we’re going after, those young kids that might be inspired,” Cuyler said. “That’s really our mission, is to get kids to understand what they’re seeing, learn from it, and then be awed by this amazing spectacle.”

“Hopefully a new generation of science teachers will come out of it.”

Resources:

Podcast of our interview with Elaine Cuyler:


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