Local daycare project makes national science magazine

Michael Kauper found a way to teach kids about how the earth moves around the sun, and his experiment gained national attention

White-haired and soft-spoken, Kingfield's Michael Kauper belies the stereotype that men can't manage children. In the midst of a home daycare packed with books, toys and children, Kauper comfortably holds a sobbing 2-year-old while telling an adult how he combined his love of photography and astronomy.

Pointing to a framed picture on the wall, he said, “It took about 100 hours of waiting to take that photograph of a comet in La Paz, Bolivia.”

At Turner and Kauper Family Child Care, science education -- especially astronomy -- starts early. From the youngest preschoolers to not-quite-middle-school students, everyone is included in the science projects, experiments and activities.

That's how Kauper and his kids ended up in the pages of the March 2003 Sky and Telescope magazine. The national magazine published Kauper's article about the daycare's “Analemma Project,” an ambitious year-long project that taught children how the earth moves around the sun.

A history of experiments

Kauper and his daycare partner Marian Turner have long been informal educators, orchestrating hundreds of kid-friendly science experiments -- successful and failed -- during 30 years of operation.

“We do lots of experiments with disappointing results,” said Kauper with a wry smile; his dry humor surprises, adding an edge to his gentle nature.

The former graduate-level physicist's love for astronomy has led him and his daycare kids on sky-watching camping trips where they locate little-known planets and stars working with advanced telescopes. (He and the kids also do projects based in geology, biology, chemistry, etc.)

But one particular project has had Kauper stumped for years. He's wanted to create an activity that helped kids understand the route the earth follows around the sun -- to understand why, viewed from a single point on earth at the same time over a year, the sun travels in a stretched out figure-eight pattern, instead of a simple circle.

The analemma

If the earth had no tilt and revolved in a perfect circle, earthlings would see the sun arrive at the same location at the same time each day. But there's a lag between our local time and when the sun crosses our patch of sky. The lag is caused by two phenomena: our planet is slightly tilted in comparison to the Sun, and earth revolves in an oval-- not a circle.

Tilted and spinning in an ellipse, Earth creates a lopsided figure-eight pattern called an analemma as it circles the sun. The rotation and tilt also affect Earth's travel time, because the planet slows down as it's pulled closer to the sun (in winter) and speeds up when it moves farther away from the pull of the sun (in summer).

In the backyard

Kauper wanted the children to create their own analemma, but for years he couldn't figure out a way that young children could understand it.

A eureka-like moment occurred when he remembered how sundials cast a shadow.

The part of the sundial that reflects the sun and makes a shadow is called a gnomon; Kauper realized that kids could capture the yearlong cycle of the planets with their own gnomon.

Inspired, he then designed what became the “Year 2000 Analemma Project,” an endeavor that would cost less than $20.

For his gnomon, Kauper and the children found a large circular screw and screwed it into the top of their 8-foot-high backyard fence. On sunny days, the screw-- about two inches long and one inch wide --and cast a circular shadow onto the pavement beneath the backyard fence.

A battery-operated atomic clock with an alarm rang at five minutes to noon once a week.

“As soon as the alarm would go off all the children would start shouting, 'Analemma, Analemma!'” said Kauper.

Rushing outside, a crew of 2- and 3-year-olds clamored to clear off any dirt, snow and or ice clouding the shadow on the pavement. The older kids then traced the screw's shadow with a “Rub a Dub” laundry marker, and then painted the markings yellow.

“We had to be really fast because the sun moves fast,” said Erin Swenson Klatt, one of the shadow tracers.

Though there were many weeks in Southwest Minneapolis when there was no sun to cast a shadow, there were enough sunny days during the year to complete the small yellow dot pattern in the backyard.

“In the summer, the shadow was sharp and clear because the sun is higher up, and in the winter it was harder to trace because the sun was low and the shadow was fuzzy,” said Nelle Anderson, another tracer and painter.

After the project was completed, Kauper thought his analemma project was good enough for schools and other groups to replicate. Noting the stunning photographs of analemmas in the sky published by the amateur astronomy magazine Sky and Telescope, Kauper wrote the magazine describing his own backyard analemma.

“I waited and waited and waited and I heard nothing. Then after many months they called and said they wanted to publish the article I wrote. I had to peel myself off the ceiling I was so surprised,” said Kauper.