The Power of the Sun in Your Classroom

Here's a question for you: what's the brightest star in the sky?

... the sun, of course!

Many of us witnessed at least part of the recent solar eclipse.  Though it was only a partial eclipse here in New England, it was still striking to witness the moon slipping across the sun. However, to witness the eclipse, we needed to either wear special glasses that filtered out most of the light coming from the sun, or create shadow images of the sun using pinhole cameras or even a pasta strainer. (You can see one of our friends using their own contraption made from a cereal box on our Facebook page!)

We have all heard that you should never stare at the sun during an eclipse.  Interestingly, this idea is a bit of a misnomer: the sun isn’t any more powerful during the eclipse.  We should never ever look directly at the sun at any time, as the light being emitted is just too powerful for human eyes to see without causing damage to the retinas.  However, we often need to be reminded of the fact during the eclipse because so many people want to see what is going on.

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Now that "eclipse fever" is over (until 2024, of course!), there is time to break down the science of power of the sun. Below, you’ll find an experiment that you can do with students to experience the power of sunlight without having to look at the sun.


Experiment: Melting Rates

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Materials

  • 6 pieces of colored paper
  • 1 black, 1 white, and 4 others (EG blue, red, yellow, green)
  • 6 ice cubes of the same size

Instructions

  • Choose a bright, sunny day with low wind, and a clear, shade-less spot.
  • Place one ice cube on each piece of paper directly in the sun.
  • As the ice cubes melts, take note of which cubes melt faster and which melt slower.

The ice on the black piece of paper should melt much faster than the others.  As a color, black is very efficient at absorbing sunlight and transferring light energy into heat energy.  Students should also notice that dark colors will melt ice faster than light colors.  White reflects the most sunlight back into the atmosphere and melts the ice slowest. Happy melting!