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Central Texas has some of the best seats in the country for the once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse April 8.

Austin-area students learn about the upcoming total eclipse through an escape-room-style game

A 9-year-old girl is standing between her parents as they look at a tablet in a blue case for instructions on how to complete a challenge in an eclipse-themed game.
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Nine-year-old Emma (center) plays an eclipse game with the help of her parents, Elise and Justin Baxter, at Girlstart in Austin last week.

Nine-year-old Emma was in a race against time. She had 20 minutes to solve four challenges related to the upcoming solar eclipse.

She summed up the experience pretty succinctly: "It was hard."

The interactive game, narrated by two astrophysicists, was part of an event hosted by Girlstart in Austin this month. The nonprofit focuses on getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math or STEM.

“We’re hoping to introduce the eclipse before it actually starts, so that way [kids] have a little bit of background knowledge about what to expect,” Jess Thompson, Girlstart's community STEM senior coordinator, said.

The game is being rolled out to nearly two dozen organizations and schools, including Johnson City ISD, Wimberley ISD and Blanco ISD campuses — which will all be closed on the day of the eclipse because of concerns about the influx of visitors.

Emma said she's excited to see the eclipse, which will cast a shadow over a swath of Central Texas for nearly 4 ½ minutes in some spots April 8. Eight-year-old Nora, who was also at the Girlstart event, said Central Texas will not be in the path of totality again for more than 300 years.

“So, it’s like a lifetime opportunity to [see] it,” she said.

A deeper understanding of the eclipse

Nora and Emma are two of about 6,000 students in Central Texas playing the escape-room-style game, aptly named Eclipse Quest. It was developed by the Science Mill, a museum in Johnson City, with a grant from the Simons Foundation.

The game is primarily meant for students in third through sixth grade, but Jeff Wheatcraft, director of STEM education growth for the museum, says anyone can play. He said the four challenges are meant to deepen people's understanding of what an eclipse is.

An 8-year-old girl and her parents stand at the far end of a table that has a game on it that is divided into four different sections. The game is called "Eclipse Quest: Journey Through the Shadows."
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Eclipse Quest is an escape-room-type game where the player must solve four challenges related to the eclipse.

In the first challenge, students have to align the sun — which in this case is a flashlight — with a moon replica to cast a shadow on Earth that mimics the path of the total eclipse.

Wheatcraft said it's meant to help students understand that an eclipse is similar to the shadows they see every day. During an eclipse, he said, we're in the moon's shadow.

“It’s no different than you standing behind somebody," he said.

A girl in a white sweatshirt tries to align a flashlight with a small replica of the moon to cast a shadow on a panel.
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
A student tries to align a flashlight with a small replica of the moon to cast a shadow on a panel.

The second challenge involves a small model of Stonehenge, while the third focuses on how folktales tried to explain eclipses.

“The last challenge really focuses on today. How are we able to predict out … decades in advance down to the mile where eclipses will fall?" Wheatcraft said. "And it’s mathematically based — we understand the positions of the sun, Earth and moon. So that last one has [students] align different maps to figure out where is the best location to look at the upcoming eclipse.”

So far, Wheatcraft said, about 50-60% of students have been able to complete all four challenges before time runs out.

"To us, [that's] good because we're looking at well, it's challenging enough for some and others might need more hints or something,” he said.

A good game creates more questions

Wheatcraft, who taught in San Antonio for more than a decade and once won Texas Teacher of the Year, said creating an interactive game that is engaging for students was important to him then and now.

“We don’t want to just tell them, 'Hey, this is a shadow!'" he said. "We want them to understand and play with how do shadows work."

To him, the hallmark of an engaging experience is whether students have more questions when it's done, and that's what he's seen with Eclipse Quest.

"It's great because it's almost like one of those mystery novels where we give them this much and then it kind of [stokes] their curiosity to go, 'I want to know a little bit more about that,'" he said. "And, to me, that’s the best thing."

The student engagement does not end when the game is over. The Science Mill is sending students home with materials to learn more about the eclipse, as well as glasses to view it safely. The museum is also planning to meet with students later to see how the game may have changed the way they viewed the eclipse.

"It’s really a lot of cool engagement, a lot of deep engagement," he said, "so that they really feel like they’re impacted and empowered to go out and learn more."

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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