Big Dipper

Look Up! Part 1 — A Guide to Viewing the Upper Half of Our Surroundings

By NCOAE Headquarters June 17, 2020

Outdoor Educator Training

We’re literally going to be looking upward in the next three posts here on the NCOAE blog, with tips for outdoor educators, wilderness guides, and outdoor recreation enthusiasts alike regarding the terrain overhead. We will be honing our outdoors skills by exploring the wilderness above our heads.

Today’s post (part one in the three-part series) suggests taking a close look at the night sky. And why would we want to do that? Because most of us in the outdoor and experiential education field are adept at tying knots; cooking over a campfire; and naming local rivers, rapids and mountain ranges. But when it comes to the landscape above our heads — the heavens, the clouds, and the winged wildlife — many of us remain slack jawed with wonder.

Imagine an evening in the backcountry with a group of students or adults, some of them seeing bright stars — unhampered by city lights — perhaps for the first time. At this point, you can point upward and say, “That isn’t just a beautiful sky. It’s way more than just that!”

By having everyone lay down, look up, and listen as you point out and describe the individual stars and constellations that your group can now clearly see because they are far from city lights, you’ve opened everyone’s field of vision to the space above our buildings and tree lines that’s often forgotten and/or taken for granted.

With just a little bit of research, you can pick up a wealth of “fun facts” about the night sky. For example, knowing where to find constellations and then sharing the stories that accompany these heavenly connect-the-dot starry clusters makes you even more authoritative and helpful than you already are.  

And the stories behind the constellations are beautiful, cultural, and entertaining. Using the embedded video below, watch and listen to Neal deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, cosmologist, planetary scientist, author, and science communicator, as he describes the night sky.

The best place to start any chat about the constellations is with the Big Dipper, which is part of Ursa Major (Great Bear). It is comprised of seven stars, with three representing the handle overhead, connected to the remaining four stars to create a big square pot or pan.

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