Having not taught much astronomy, I can say that I am wholly unaware of some difficulties I should expect students to have, but I am learning.

Here are things I learned today about student thinking about east and west.

Several students discussed that if you begin heading east (along the equator for example), eventually you’ll be heading west again, like, for example, once you’ve gone half way around.

Several students also said things consistent with the idea that east is toward your right (no matter where you are looking). For example, a student said that they saw the crescent moon last night in the eastern sky last night. When I asked how they knew this, they said because it was to their right.

Several students also said things consistent with east is toward right on a drawing (no matter the perspective of drawing). We have been making various drawings of sun and earth, trying to make sense of and gather data about, and it is common to equate right-ward as east-ward, even if in the drawing it might be inward toward the center of the earth.

I spent a fair amount of time talking with a colleague about this one after class, and I’ve been thinking about it. We touched upon many things such maps, compasses, geo-political distinctions, east/west vs north south, spherical coordinates and geometry, non-cartesian unit vector, direction vs. location (or region), etc. I promise to write more about my thinking and our conversation, but I just wanted to quickly get this one out there.

What do people think?

## 4 thoughts on “My lack of knowledge about student ideas about astronomy and the earth”

1. Growing up, we lived on 64W, west of Raleigh. My sister once drove for an hour the wrong way trying to get home – not realizing that when you were west of home, you should take 64E. Somehow that seems related.

Also weird to me is that I never mix up N and S, but having moved to the west coast, I ALWAYS mix up E and W. Not just a little bit. It feels like left and right that way (we never mix-up up and down, but frequently confuse left and right). I think I saw Dehaene say something about this once – mirror images can pass for normal, but up/down inversions can’t.

Plus, the mid-west is back east now. And the Far East is to my west.

2. I highly recommend the book “Heavenly Errors” by Neil Comins for a more in depth look at student misconceptions in astronomy.

3. Christopher says:

Well, Columbus sailed west to reach the east, so there’s that working against you here.

There is a tremendous amount of spatial visualization involved in thinking these issues through. The rotation necessary to consider where north is when facing east, and etc? Those are really challenging things to do if you don’t have spatial skills. It’s like you don’t even know what language the people who can do it are speaking.

I have most of those skills. And I am still sympathetic with ljatkins above. He/she has benchmarked (I assume) “east” as “where the ocean is”. Now he/she can keep track of where the ocean is, but has not yet killed the instinct to call that direction “east”.

4. Lori Matthews says:

At least once a school year, the opportunity presents itself for a photo of a beach to appear before my students. I hardly ever miss the chance to say “Oh, that must be California because the ocean is on the left!” pause… pause… pause… (or if on the right, South Carolina or the like) Eventually someone agrees with me and then someone thinks about it a little longer and says “wait…” Great discussion….:)