Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

Posts Tagged ‘Astronomy

Tomorrow the students learn just how big our solar system is and just how small we are.  We will use the attached worksheet to calculate the percent distance from Pluto for the planets in our solar system and our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri.

Solar System – Size and Scale

To make this lesson really stick, we first calculate the percentages, then we lay out a long 100 meter tape outside.  Students volunteer to be objects and they get a card with the picture of that object on it.  Now we place them on the scale based on their percentage distance.  The Sun is at the zero point, Mercury being only 1% of the distance to Pluto is at 1 meter.  Earth is at 3 meters, Mars is at 4 meters.  Jupiter jumps to 13 meters from the Sun.  Pluto is at the 100 meter mark.

In addition to the vast distances, I then discuss how big these objects would be at this scale.  The Sun, as huge as it is, is only 2.4 cm or 1 inch in diameter.  The Earth would be 0.2 mm, about the size of the period at the end of a sentence.

We discuss how long it takes to get from the Earth to Mars (a 6 month trip by rocket).  The people who are Earth and Mars are fighting for space on the tape, it’s crowded near the Sun.  After they start to get a sense of scale, I hit them with this.  At this scale, the next closes star,  Proxima Centauri, is 676 km (420 miles) away, or roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine.


At NSTA I met an earth science/astronomy teacher named Jay.  In one of the lectures Jay attended on the Chandra, there were playing cards showing the steps of stellar evolution.  He told me the cards are free and I found the site and ordered a set of them for my classroom today.  One way the cards were used was to ask as question, like “What are the steps to a star becoming a white dwarf?”  You can then choose a subset of the cards and have the students create the proper order of the star’s evolution.

To order the material, the bottom of the page has a link saying “request.”  You must be an educator to order this material, so if you are just a space nut, sorry, find a teacher friend or give up your high paying job to become a poorly paid teacher so that you can get free stuff for your classroom.  There are additional links and request forms for posters, you will find it on the first order page.

Whoever is responsible for the Chandra site has a real clue about education.  There are actual lessons and activities that a teacher can use with little or no modification.  I’m finding this to be a rarity; usually the sites have quick activities or thoughts they post as lessons.  The link to the Chandra Educational site is here:

There is an awful lot here, I plan on spending more time digging when I have some reading time.

My 12th grade Physical Science class has been restructured.  Basically, about half of my students had Physical Science in 9th grade at other schools and they all had Chemistry last year.  While it’s still Physical Science, we are spending a great deal of time on astronomy and the basic physics they need to understand the universe.  The kids are very excited about their astronomy course, as am I.  I am thinking about showing them the entire series of “From the Earth to the Moon.”  It’s long, real long.  There are 12, one-hour episodes.  I also plan on showing them Apollo 13.  I’m just not sure I want to show twelve days of shows, but I don’t think there are any episodes I would leave out.  Showing one, or even two a week will take too long, we’ll be done astronomy before I finish.  So I’m looking for the opinions of other teachers.  What do you think?  What would you do?

This year I wanted to include a unit on astronomy in my Physics classes. Rather than teach the material myself, I felt this was worth having the students do as a project. I broke the material into the following areas:

  1. The Earth
  2. The Sun & other stars
  3. Space Travel & Space Ships
  4. The Big Bang & Cosmic Evolution
  5. Inner Planets
  6. Mars
  7. Jupiter
  8. Saturn
  9. Outer Bodies (Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud)
  10. Telescopes
  11. The Night Sky
  12. Exosolar Planets & SETI

The order above is the order I wanted the material presented. While that didn’t work out because students were absent or unprepared, I developed the order so that the subject built on previous presentations. I will definitely keep it the order listed for next year.

Animation of Saturn\'s RingsEach group or individual had to do a Powerpoint presentation with at least 20 slides. I then gave them a presentation called “How to do a lousy powerpoint” where I did many things wrong to illustrate what NOT to do. It got a good laugh. I told them I wanted well researched information and lots of visuals, including movie files and simulations. To start them on the research path, I provided this page of links: recommended-astronomy-web-links

I had specific areas I wanted the students to include, so I helped them along by providing a sheet with suggested topics. Here is the word document: astronomy-outline-2

The handout is broken into the topic and suggestions specific to that topic. There isn’t a sheet for SETI because a couple of students asked to add it. They did a great job describing the different methods used to detect exosolar planets. The simulation below is a demonstration of the wobble method used to detect planets outside of our solar system.

Star and planet dancingStudents also had to provide a study guide for taking notes during the presentation and a quiz to be given the next day. I ran into problems with trying to fit two presentations and two quizzes into each class period. In the end, I randomly gave quizzes and they were allowed to use their study guides (as was the plan). I need to do something better here. I may up the requirements to 30 slides, then only have one presentation per class period. That would work out better for the quizzes.

No project of mine would be complete without the rubric: Astronomy rubric

Please add to this project by providing your comments.

What’s New in 2013/2014?

Every year brings a change, this one is no exception.

I will be picking up the sophomore honors Algebra II class to keep them separate from the juniors. This should help accelerate them and put them on a stronger track towards Calculus. Looks like there will be only one section each of Physics and Calculus, but still two of Robotics & Engineering.

Hot topics this year are going to be the Common-Core Standards, Standards-Based Grading (SBG), improving AP Calculus scores, and somehow adding Python, maybe as a club.

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