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Summer solstice math: the long and short of it

Jun 21, 2019

Nature is a good math tutor for kids. OK, maybe not a math tutor exactly, but nature can be an outdoor math learning center that has some very useful resources. Just watching the sunrise and sunset, and noticing what time they happen, is a way of noticing patterns -- and that’s a skill that’s at the heart of math.

 

Today Trumbull will have 15 hours and 8 minutes of daylight (sunrise 5:20 a.m., sunset 8:28 p.m.), according to timeanddate.com. That’s a longer stretch of daylight than on any other day this year. Today, June 21, is our summer solstice. For astronomers, this marks the true start of summer.

 

Why do we even have a longest and a shortest day of the year? It’s because the Earth’s axis is tilted with respect to its plane of revolution around the sun. All the planets in our solar system have a tilt, some more and some less. Earth’s tilt is 23.5 degrees; Uranus’ tilt is more than 90 degrees, and Jupiter and Venus both have very little axial tilt, only about 3 degrees. Less tilt means less variation between seasons. (Visit NASA.gov for some nice graphics illustrating the tilt and seasons.)

 

Professional astronomers can do very complex math regarding seasons and sunrises -- on Earth or even other planets -- but anyone can do simple observations that reinforce basic math sense. Here is a question to have your child think about while lounging on the beach at noon or roasting marshmallows at twilight: If there are 15 hours of daylight, how much of the whole 24-hour day is that? Some kids will immediately say, ‘I have no idea!’ But if you ask, Is it more than half or less than half? they might find they do have an idea. Basic notions of more and less, wholes and parts, can keep kids in touch with their math sense and their math confidence.

 

For students (and math tutors), summer began the minute the school year ended. Now that it’s officially, astronomically, summer, we hope you enjoy the season and all the math it has to offer!

(Photo from NASA.gov)