Early this morning, the Earth got hit by the start of a fairly strong coronal mass ejection (CME) that has the potential to disrupt satellite service and shut down power grids, but will likely do nothing more that produce some amazing auroras tonight in the Northern Hemisphere.

Solar flares

Snapshot of solar flares from March 8.

In fact, this coronal mass ejection travelling at millions of miles per hour is a precursor to storms coming in the next year as the Sun reaches its peak in the 11-year cycle for such events.

If I was teaching science, at any grade, I’d be adding this event to the curriculum.  The kinds of questions I’d want students to research would include:

  • How dangerous are CME’s to life on Earth?
  • Why do such storms have the potential to disrupt communications?
  • How can power grids be effected by these storms?
  • What are the best precautions we can take to minimize the impact of CME’s?
  • Why does solar activity peak every 11 years?

The point is to ask questions of the students and then provide them with the freedom to explore the answers themselves – a far more effective educational model than having them read a textbook chapter on the Sun, or to hear a lecture on the topic.  In the process of finding answers to these questions, students will start asking other questions themselves.  Ultimately, they might even decide to design a way to insure that Earth would be completely immune to these storms in the future.

This is a terrific educational moment, and we should seize it.  As for me, I hope to see some Northern Lights tonight!