Data Visualization Constellations

With two of my middle division colleagues, I helped sixth grade science students create illuminated models of constellations that also illustrated the distance of the stars from Earth.

Students chose a constellation they wanted to build (many chose their astrological sign constellation). We provided a sheet of paper with the constellation outline and the star positions. Students needed to build at least four of the stars in the constellations; some had the time to build additional circuits and stars. They started by researching the names of the stars in their constellations and their distances from Earth measured in light years.

Starting with a piece of cardboard that served as a base, the students used a pushpin to poke holes through the paper and into the cardboard to mark the stars' locations. After circling the small holes with a pencil, they designated one side of the circle the positive side, the other negative. Then they drew their circuits for each star: each star had its own circuit to reduce troubleshooting.

Using a scale of 1 centimeter equals 1 light year, they cut long craft straws to the appropriate length for each star. Some stars were incredibly far away; in these cases, two straws were connected with a small wood dowel and hot glue. The straws were affixed to the base using hot glue.

Next, the students traced their drawn circuits with conductive copper tape. They learned from Chibitronics how to properly fold the copper tape to make 90° turns. The copper tape is not easy to work with at first but most learned quickly.

Once their circuits were built they used a multimeter set to continuity to test the circuits and make sure there were not any tears or short circuits. They tested each side of each circuit.

Before selecting their LEDs, the students researched the color of each of the stars in their constellations. They used white, yellow, blue, and red LEDs. The LEDs were connected to the paper circuits with the correct polarity using small pieces of conductive fabric tape, which is a little easier to use than the copper tape and adhered well to the copper tape with the LED lead in between. To finish, they wrapped the bundle with cellophane tape.

I built four power supplies with two AA batteries, resistors, and alligator clips the students could attach to their models. Each student connected her or his constellation to test and then troubleshoot the LED connections until they were met with success.

Finally, the students labeled the constellation and the stars they built with their names and distances.

A few students covered the cardboard with construction paper. This model in particular was stunning. The additional stars in the constellation were marked with a silver Sharpie pen.

Some students who took their models home at the conclusion of the project wanted a way to light up the LEDs. Instead of walking them through building a breadboard power supply I decided the Chibitronic Chibi Chip and Clip would serve perfectly. Additionally, students can program different effects or the brightness of the stars.

It was interesting for me to learn so much about constellations and to understand the vast variation in distances between the stars. We surveyed the students about the project and most really enjoyed the hands-on project. We found students who sometimes struggled in school were really engaged and on-task and served to mentor their peers as they completed their own projects. Data visualization is an interesting field, and this project was an engaging way to introduce these students to the idea.