Photography in secondary-school science and math classes

Full moon setting in the west by the Bundy Metro Station, September 6, 2017 at 5:29 am.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to introduce photography into middle- and high-school science and math classes to assist the students in studying concepts that often seem unreal to them. For example, if you can get a freeze-framed picture of a student throwing a basketball toward a hoop, the path of the ball makes a very nice parabola. Math in action! Another thing I’ve tried unsuccessfully is to document the growth of plants under different conditions so that you can assemble a video showing the plant growing over 6 weeks or so in a video of a minute or less.

Another good example that I’ve been working on is the phases of the moon. Modern urban and suburban students don’t have a need to know anything about the cycles of the moon, and consequently they don’t, often to the point of not recognizing that the moon even has phases. I like to teach them about it because any spherical or circular object will sooner or later generate the trigonometric functions, so it’s good background knowledge to have.

On December 3, 2017, we had a so-called “supermoon.” The moon looks bigger because it’s about 50,000 kilometers closer to the earth than it is at the far point of its orbit (almost all orbits of natural satellites are elliptical, not circular, which is why we get supermoons). I was arriving at school at about 6:15 am on December 4 just as the supermoon was setting over the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, which is a block away from our school:

I took the picture and thought nothing more about it, until I arrived at almost the same time the next day (December 5), and the moon was considerably higher in the sky:

This is exactly what you expect, because the full moon “rises” at sunset and “sets” at sunrise. As the full moon moves toward a half moon a week or so later, the moon rises later each night after sunset and sets later in the morning after dawn. (The moon doesn’t actually rise or set; the earth rotates into view of the moon which only appears to rise or set, and actually stays in approximately the same place in the sky from one day to the next.) This is hard to explain to students but, it turns out, is really easy to demonstrate photographically.

By Wednesday it had “risen” even higher:

Note that you can now see that the path that it is following is an arc, not a straight line.

And by Thursday (December 7, 2017), it was increasingly hard to get the moon and First Congregational into the same frame:

This sequence of photographs demonstrates what happens from day to day on the ground. Once the students can actually see that the moon is setting later and later, they can be introduced to a more abstract diagram of the earth-moon rotational system that, we hope, will make more sense to them:


The tricky part is how to develop photographic opportunities like this systematically. I happened to fall into this example because I actually watch the phases of the moon and was looking up at the right time, and arrived at nearly the same time each day after the first picture. If we’re going to integrate photography into the science and math curriculum (something I think important, especially at charter schools that don’t have the capital budget to build traditional wet labs complete with hoods (designed to suck out noxious fumes), eye-fountains, safety showers, and others expensive build-outs), then we have to be more systematic and purposeful about using it. It probably requires the purchases of appropriate photographic equipment and automaticing it. The pictures above were taken on an iPhone 7, which is quite decent in ordinary light, but lousy in low light….really lousy. Still, they are suggestive of what we might be able to accomplish. Stay tuned.


2 thoughts on “Photography in secondary-school science and math classes

  1. Very interesting! I got the APP “Video Physics” and took a video of a student taking a free shot on the basketball court and then used the app to trace the ball’s path. The app will also turn the shot into a graph.

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