I’ve been guiding s group of sixth graders through the process of building astrolabes in the design lab. On the one hand, it’s silly. The astrolabe hasn’t been a major part of education in what… Two hundred years? Probably closer to 300 years. But the mathematics and astronomical knowledge it unlocks is tremendous. Angle-measuring, time telling, integration of knowledge abou what a degree of arc really means, measuring heights, tracking motion, connecting to the explorers of the Age of Exploration (and Exploitation). There’s a whole range of mental capacities activated just by holding one.
This design they’re building isn’t hugely complicated. It takes some getting used to, of course, and my kids aren’t going to learn all five hundred functions of the astrolabe. But holding one, and building one, will rouse their curiosity, I hope. It will also give them an appreciation for the power of the Internet — this is a design downloaded from the Internet, road-tested by me against a dozen other designs, and built full-size as a classroom activity.
I could really make it hard by writing instructions on the use of the astrolabe in Latin, but simply talking about the mater and the rete and the alidade seems to have satisfied our need for fancy terminology.