Arkansas educators emphasize educational opportunities before, during eclipse

Second-grade student Jose Byrd (black T-shirt with sun) and classmates try out eclipse viewing glasses that they decorated at Riverside Elementary School in Cleveland in this March 14, 2024 file photo. Teachers in or near the path of totality say they have worked to come up with educational and engaging lessons for the rare event. (AP/Carolyn Thompson
Second-grade student Jose Byrd (black T-shirt with sun) and classmates try out eclipse viewing glasses that they decorated at Riverside Elementary School in Cleveland in this March 14, 2024 file photo. Teachers in or near the path of totality say they have worked to come up with educational and engaging lessons for the rare event. (AP/Carolyn Thompson

More than 235,000 students in Arkansas will be out of school April 8, when a total eclipse coats the daytime sky across a large part of the Natural State in darkness.

Educators say they have collaborated extensively to take advantage of this rare opportunity to teach children about an event that hasn't been seen in the state in a century, and won't come again until 2045, even if they won't be in the classroom.

Four of Pulaski County's public school districts are collaborating on an event taking place Thursday at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds that will feature three experts in physics and engineering, as well as dozens of STEM projects completed by students across each district, while an Arkansas nonprofit and a utility have teamed up to ensure every student can safely watch the eclipse. Students across the state are collecting data during the eclipse in cooperation with the state Department of Education and the University of Central Arkansas, and will give that data back to the students to analyze for themselves. Other events geared at students abound throughout the Natural State.

Total solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, completely blocking the latter, according to NASA. The sky in Central Arkansas will darken at about 1:51 p.m. for about 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The last time a total solar eclipse occurred in Arkansas was in 1918.

The Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville/North Pulaski and Pulaski County Special school districts have been working since October to be ready for Thursday's Totality STEM event. Speaking to fifth graders at the event will be physicist and author K. Renee Horton, physicist and former gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones and Elizabeth Whitley, who is the senior officer of education at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock.

The districts' choice of speakers was strategic, according to Jennifer Beasley, STEM director for the Little Rock School District.

"We wanted Black and brown children and females to see that 'hey there's somebody that looks like me that may not have had everything they needed in school but wanted to work in NASA, or be a physicist, or do cool things with kids, and I can do that also,' Beasley said.

Students from kindergarten through 8th grade were also invited to sign up to create a science, technology, engineering and mathematics project related to the eclipse for the event. More than 60 different projects will be on display, developed by kids from each of the four school districts, according to Jessica Duff, spokeswoman for the Pulaski County Special School District. Roughly 130 high school students will volunteer as ambassadors throughout the event, she said.

The districts initially met monthly, assembling a team that included their STEM directors, security facilitators, nurses and communications staff, Duff said. By mid-February, the group was meeting weekly.

"We just thought this would be a great idea for us to get all our schools, kindergarten thru 8th grade to come and display their talents in STEM," Beasley said.

The districts also put together a list of educational resources, as well as other activities and links for families in case they choose not to attend any events on the day of the eclipse. According to Beasley, the resources are available through each district's respective website.


The state Education Department's office of computer science and the University of Central Arkansas collaborated to hold the "2024 Solar Eclipse Endeavor Statewide Data Hunt."

As part of the hunt, participating teachers will work with their students to collect data on light intensity and temperature as the eclipse occurs. In excess of 60 schools in more than 45 counties are taking part in the project, according to the Education Department.

William Slaton, a professor and coordinator of engineering physics, said students rarely get an opportunity to collaborate with scientists and then analyze the data they themselves collected. Instead, the data teachers and their students often get is "pre-canned," he said.

Slaton said neither he nor the Education Department team he has been working with ahead of the project can recall an Arkansas-wide initiative similar to this one, in which students and educators in K-12 and higher education take and share "meaningful data."

"We think that's unique," he said. "That's not been done before."

Arkansas is remarkably fortunate to be in the path of totality this year, and again in another quarter of a century, according to Slaton. On average, locations have to wait 375 years to fall into such a path.

"This is one of those extremely rare celestial events that you just don't get to see," he said. "It's something that you have to be incredibly lucky or wealthy enough to travel to where that shadow is sweeping through. To have it come through our backyard is incredibly lucky."

In Morrilton, the state Education Department's Educational Services for the Visually Impaired (ESVI) and the Arts Council of Conway County will host an event in Morrilton featuring NASA representative and Arkansas schools graduate Denna Lambert. She will deliver her keynote speech at 11 a.m. at the Rialto Community Arts Center, 215 E. Broadway.

Lambert is the inclusive innovation lead for NASA's Early Stage Innovations and Partnerships program, according to the Education Department.

The event will also provide activities that offer tactile tools and hands-on experiences for children who are blind and visually-impaired.

Last Thursday, Arkansas PBS released a documentary titled TOTALITY: The Great Arkansas Eclipse that is available to stream on their website. The 25-minute film features Arkansas astronomers, as well as scientists from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Arkansas Tech University Observatory.

On April 8, Arkansas PBS will livestream the eclipse from four "strategic" locations in the state: De Queen, Petit Jean Mountain, Russellville, and Jonesboro. The stream will also provide insights from "esteemed national and local" physicists and experts in astronomy.

Budding astronomers can also learn how to make their own eclipse viewer using a cereal box and household items.


The Arkansas STEM Coalition, in partnership with Entergy, is providing roughly 625,000 eclipse glasses to every public school student in the state, said Hannah Vogler, executive director for the coalition. The figure is based on school enrollment numbers provided by the Education Department, she said.

Conversations about the massive distribution endeavor began more than a year ago, as Vogler and Roberta Parks, director of the STEM Center at University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, talked about the eclipse. The discussion prompted them to wonder about the number of kids who might not be able to experience the eclipse because they didn't have proper eyewear.

Except during the precise moments of totality, when the moon completely blocks the sun, it is unsafe to look directly at the sun without specialized eye protection, according to the American Astronomical Society.

During a meeting in March with "a bunch of other people from around the state," Parks put forth a question that moved the effort forward:

"What if we just got glasses for everybody?" she asked. "We've got a year to figure it out."

The project ended up costing more than half of the coalition's annual budget; according to Vogler, they spent close to $230,000. She said it couldn't have been successful without Entergy, which became a major sponsor and has sent dozens of volunteers to help with the project.

The distribution project has a personal connection to Vogler, who vividly remembers seeing a solar eclipse when she was about 8 years old.

"Kids become more interested in things they can see and experience firsthand," she said. "Anything that can be a real hands-on experience with kids, they remember things better."

The spectacle of the event naturally creates a unique opportunity for learning in that it provides spectacle, promotes emotional connections and connects to seemingly different facets of life, according to Vogler. For instance, economics and astronomy may not immediately appear related, but state officials and entrepreneurs hope to capitalize on tourism spurred by Arkansas' prime location for this eclipse.

The important thing is to help them to understand the rare sight they witness, according to Vogler.

"It's going to be amazing," she said. "It's literally going to be an awe-inspiring event."

Details on other eclipse events happening in Central Arkansas can be found here, while information on events taking place elsewhere in the state can be found here.

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