WHAT'S THE STORY: Independence School District science educators are using the eclipse and a program from NASA to help stimulate interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

HOW DOES IT AFFECT ME? Most ISD students will get to experience the eclipse with free glasses from the school district and the students will see lessons from the eclipse incorporated into the curriculum before, during and the weeks after the event.

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For a few days in February, the science teachers of the Independence School District middle schools and high schools were the students.

Cindy Magnifico, the secondary science instructional specialist for the district, saw a unique opportunity coming on Aug. 21 and wanted to get ahead of the game with her teachers.

NASA had helped Magnifico and her teachers with some lesson plans in previous years, but when she learned a total solar eclipse was on its way, she saw a perfect chance for the NASA engineers to come to Independence and be teachers to the teachers.

"They usually don't send out presenters except for really large gatherings like the Science Teachers of Missouri or big conventions and things like that," Magnifico explained. "So when I had attended some of their workshops there were probably 25 to 30 teachers at their presentations, but I had twice that many in our district for professional development, so I convinced them I would have about 80 teachers for just between sixth and 12th grade, so then they said, 'Let's look at some dates,' and then ended up coming up in February."

The NASA teachers provided the teachers with an entire curriculum based on the solar eclipse and the fact that Independence will be in the path of totality at about 1:19 p.m. on Aug. 21. Now the teachers will be able to pass on that knowledge to the students before, during and following that day to help spur an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. NASA's curriculum also includes cross-curricular activities for reading, language and other courses.

"They're a better facilitator by doing that, actually seeing a NASA engineer presents the lessons like they're intended," Magnifico said of her teachers. "When they came they brought an entire bound curriculum of lesson plans and activities and video links that they gave to every single one of our teachers in sixth through 12th grade. So they went through that with them and taught them about the (NASA) website, all the activities that are available on the website and how to – even though it was devoted to middle school – kind of gear it up for high school as well. So they helped my teachers prepare."

Now the ISD teachers will be prepared to use the Aug. 21 eclipse in a variety of ways. And Magnifico said there are big plans for that day. She said the entire middle school campus – Nowlin, Bridger, Pioneer Ridge, Bingham and Independence Academy – will be outside learning about and witnessing the eclipse.

She has given her high school teachers more leeway on how they will handle the viewing.

Natalie Turnbow, the elementary science instructional specialist, said the teachers and administrators at the 18 elementary schools, will also make their own plans for that day.

Magnifico said it's a unique opportunity not only for the teachers, but the students.

"We can talk about an eclipse and the difference between a partial and a total, but then to actually get to go out and see a total eclipse, (it) is truly almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Magnifico said. "This is so rare for us to be in the path of totality here in Missouri, so this is something we actually have to take advantage of. Even if it's just for the kids to get to go outside, wear their glasses and experience it, that in itself will be valuable."

But much more is planned. The district begins the school year on Aug. 17, so the teachers will have only two school days to prepare students for it. Magnifico said that most of the time beforehand will be teaching the students about eye safety. Most of the value lies after seeing it live.

"Even though we may not do a lot beforehand, after the eclipse it's going to be just as great a time for instruction than it is before, and maybe even better because now the kids have something to tie it to," Magnifico said. "... You tell them it's when the moon passes between the sun and earth, but for seventh grade kids that can be hard to visualize, but now it's going to be a lot easier afterward to tie the instruction to what you actually observed."

Magnifico said approximately 4,000 middle school students will be involved, and that the district has already ordered all of the eclipse-viewing glasses. That means they will be working hard with administrators to figure out the logistics of getting that many students outside and maintaining order during the event and making sure of the students' safety. Teachers also will have students rotate through stations and show some informational videos to give them background.

Turnbow said that while her teachers didn't participate in the NASA presentation in February, the eclipse also offers her elementary students a great opportunity to get them interested in STEM education.

"It’s a real world science connection for students, and it should spark some good real science conversations and great experiences in the classroom," she said. "And that’s what makes it engaging for our kids. Any time we can connect it to real world, see the importance of it and understand why it is they’re learning about it.”

Turnbow said that each class will be provided glasses and a read-aloud book appropriate for each grade level for teachers to use. Each elementary will work through meetings on Aug. 14 on its own logistics of how to get the students outside to view the eclipse.

"It’s a really great opportunity for the kids because it will allow them to not only observe it, but record their findings about it and be able to model it in the classroom,” Turnbow added. “Normally, we’re not able to observe such a powerful astronomical phenomenon – we have to model it in the classroom. So for kids to be able to do that and not having to have a telescope to observe it, but just a pair of cheap eclipse viewing glasses, it’s a really great opportunity."

The lessons will be more involved for fifth grade students, Turnbow said. They already have specific lessons on solar and lunar eclipses in their science curriculum. The teachers will just move that lesson up to the beginning of the school year to take advantage of the total eclipse.

Magnifico is just happy to be able to use this natural occurrence to help spark an interest in STEM fields. She also said it would benefit seventh and eighth grade students the most because there are questions about eclipses on the state assessment tests taken at the end of the eighth grade year.

"We are in such a unique position this time. Seeing an eclipse is not that rare - I've seen a lot of eclipses in my lifetime - but a total eclipse?" Magnifico said. "Missouri is never in the path of totality, and this is just something that my teachers can point out that, yeah, you're going to see more eclipses but this one is special. This is something that you may never see again.

"We'll get to see things that they'll never see otherwise. With this total eclipse, they'll get to see the diamond ring around it, they'll get to see the sun's corona, they'll get to see it change colors in the sky, they're going to see stars in the daytime, and those are things those kids are never going to forget. And what a great springboard then as we begin talking about celestial bodies and the solar system and they'll have something to absolutely tie that back to.