Editor selections by Topic and Unit

The Physics Front is a free service provided by the AAPT in partnership with the NSF/NSDL.

Physical Sciences K-8: Astronomy Units

Astronomy (literally, "law of the stars") is the science of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the Earth's atmosphere, such as stars, planets, comets, galaxies, and cosmic background radiation. It describes the physical and chemical properties of celestial objects with calculations of their motions. Astronomical observations provide essential information for the verification of fundamental theories in physics and to explain astronomical phenomena.

  Astronomy Activities (11)

Lesson Plans:

This learning module introduces the search for planets outside of our solar system using the radial velocity and transit methods.  Planets around other stars proved very elusive to find until 1995, when astronomers in Geneva detected an exoplanet using the radial velocity (or Doppler) technique. Since that time, hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered in this manner. A second detection technique (the transit method, used in The Kepler Mission) is also explored in this module.

Item Type: Interactive Tutorial
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: 1-2 Class Periods

Great inquiry-based lesson & Flash interactive explores atmospheric conditions on Venus, Earth, & Mars -- using data from real space missions. Students analyze spectral lines to see what gases & liquids are present in each planet. Then they mathematically compare the amounts of CO2.  Comparing CO2 levels for Venus & Earth will help learners see the role of greenhouse gases in warming a planet. But be prepared for a surprise -- Mars has 20 times the atmospheric CO2 as Earth. Why is it SO much colder?

Item Type: Simulation-Based Lesson
Level: Grades 6-9
Duration: One Class Period

A collection of standards-based lesson plans for K-12 developed to help teachers integrate astronomy into the physical science classroom.

Item Type: Digital Lesson Collection
Level: Grades K-12

Activities:

Learn about space and the objects in it.

A unique method to gauge and evaluate astronomical distances

Hands-on activity that shows the scope and shape of the magnetosphere

This java applet models the motion of planets in the solar system, demonstrating Kepler's Second Law.

This website is a NASA-sponsored learning center for Grades 1-9.  Included are materials about the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and extra-galactic astronomy.  Materials are divided into two  levels:  K-8 and high school physical science.

Studies document the difficulty elementary school children have understanding why days and nights vary in length and why the seasons change.   In this inquiry-based activity, children  construct a simple sundial to track the position of the sun and measure the shadows cast by the sun's light.  An explanation of the results is included along with links to a related site for further investigation.

A terrific interactive tutorial that integrates activities, graphs, quizzes, and animations to trace a star's life from protostar stage through "old age" and death.  Appropriate for grades 7-8, with teacher guidance.

A great simulation to help students understand that stars are not moving in the night sky......our planet's rotation on its axis just makes it appear so. This sim features Polaris as the focal point for investigating moving reference frames.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 5-12

  Astronomy: An Historical Perspective (9)

Lesson Plans:

Appreciate the origins of astronomical objects.

This module lets teachers introduce the solar system within a cross-curricular framework that includes history, physics, cultural anthropology, and math. This module, sponsored by the Adler Planetarium, explores how past cultures observed the heavens. Don't miss the multimedia gallery!

Item Type: Teaching Module
Level: Grades 5-9

Activities:

A history and appreciation of the development of calendars

How did scientists first directly demonstrate that the Earth rotates? This short video, seen through the eyes of a child, explores the work of French scientist Leon Foucault -- a pendulum seems to rotate as it swings, but there is no external force that would cause the rotation (clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern). Through experiments, Foucault showed that it's not the pendulum doing the rotating. It's the steady, predictable movement of the Earth's rotation on its axis.

Item Type: Video Clip
Level: Grades 3-6
Duration: 5 minutes

References and Collections:

How teachers are facilitating teaching strategies and leading innovation in science teaching

Looking for books and articles on Galileo written at the level of middle/high school? This resource guide will point you to book lists plus some excellent web sites and videos on the legendary scientist.

This gem of a resource lets students explore the background of 32 key women who have overcome prejudice and exclusion to make significant contributions to the field of astronomy. In addition, look for the annotated links to author-recommended web sites on the topic.

Content Support For Teachers:

Using a simulated telescope online

  Astronomy: Special K-12 Collections (8)

Lesson Plans:

More than 20 interactive Java science labs with downloadable simulations.  Half of the simulations are related to Astronomy and half pertain to general topics in physical science.  Each interactive lab is attractive and fun, yet mentally challenging for adolescents. Materials include complete lesson plans which were authored collaboratively by teachers and research scientists.

Item Type: Digital Labs
Level: Grades 6-10

Activities:

NASA's Kepler Mission was launched in 2009 with the focused goal of surveying regions of the Milky Way Galaxy to discover Earth-size planets in the "habitable zone" of a star, where liquid water and possibly life might exist. You'll find classroom activities, interactive resources, simple animations showing how the detection system works, and galleries of photos, videos and 3D images.

Item Type: Digital Collection
Level: Grades 6-12

This website, sponsored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is dedicated to keeping the public updated about recent discoveries of extrasolar planets. You'll find information on exploratory missions, technology used to detect extrasolar planets, images and videos, and vignettes about the people involved in discovering other planets. Don't miss the Extreme Planet Makeover and the PlanetQuest Timeline.

Item Type: Digital Collection
Level: Gradres 6-12

Here you'll find a rich array of visualization tools for a 3D exploration of our cosmic neighborhood. The website uses actual data and images generated from past and present space missions. Students can zoom, change lighting, "ride-on-board", do scale comparisons, and replay events in real or accelerated time. Adaptable for a broad range of grade bands and ability levels.

Item Type: Digital Tool
Level: Grades 3-12

References and Collections:

K-12 classroom activities and educational resources on infrared astronomy.  Sponsored by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, find lesson plans for elementary and secondary teachers, games, image sets and videos of infrared and UV phenomena.

Item Type: Digital Collection
Level: Grades K-12

See virtual images of each planet and its moons as seen from Earth, the Sun, or from any other planet in the solar system.  Time parameters may be set from 1990-2025 to enable virtual viewing at certain dates.

Item Type: Digital Tool
Level: Grades 5-12

This comprehensive NASA website, intended for adolescent learners, provides timely news and information about space exploration and space science.  Included are many creative resources, such as "Ask an Astrophysicist", "You Be the Astrophysicist", "Satellite Showcase", and the Cosmic Times newsletter.

Item Type: News Publication
Level: Grades 7-12

NASA's Solar System Exploration website offers a wealth of information about the objects in our solar system, recent technology used to explore these worlds, space missions, and stories about the people behind the missions. Users will find image galleries, multimedia resources for teachers and learners, videos, animations, and other interactive features to explore the planets, comets, asteroids, the history of robotic exploration, and future missions.

Item Type: Digital Collection
Level: K-12

  Astronomy Resources for the K-8 Classroom (11)

Lesson Plans:

In this middle school lesson plan, students use colored pencils, adding machine tape, and file folders to create their own electromagnetic spectrum and analyze how wavelength and frequency are related.  An online student tutorial on the same subject can be linked below in the Student Tutorial section.

Here are ten standards-aligned lesson plans developed for grades 7-12 on space science and the evolution of the universe.  Some are specifically designed for middle school, including Electromagnetic Spectrum and satellite data analysis.

Wonderful set of four lessons that explore scale, relative sizes, and composition or the planets in our solar system. Kids will work with physical models to understand size and orbital distance in a fun, memorable way. Can be adapted for 5th graders, yet also includes extension mathematics for Grades 7-8, such as calculating planet density. We recommend teaming these hands-on activities with the PhET Solar System Simulator (see Activities below).

Item Type: Lesson Plan
Level: Grades 5-8
Duration: 4-6 Class Periods

Want to do a unit on Saturn, but can't sacrifice Language Arts time? This two-week unit integrates reading, writing, art, and science to provide a wonderful multi-sensory exploration of Saturn and its rings. It's completely turn-key with detailed lessons, warm-up questions, printable lab notebooks, content support, assessment, and more. All lessons are based on data provided by NASA's Cassini mission to the outer planets.

Item Type: Instructional Unit
Level: Grades 1-2
Duration: Two Weeks

Integrate the language arts and science investigation with this 12-day unit on Saturn and its rings for Grades 3-4. Four digital booklets accompany the unit -- all free (available in English and Spanish). Children will explore size and scale of Saturn, its physical composition, its moons and their characteristics. They will play the role of engineers to design a prototype spacecraft and build a probe that can withstand a fall and float in liquid. It's all turn-key, from detailed lesson plans through assessments.

Item Type: Instructional Unit
Level: Grades 3-4
Duration: 2-3 Weeks

Activities:

Full lesson plan for middle school science and math that helps students construct an understanding of the vast scale of the universe.

How did scientists first directly demonstrate that the Earth rotates? This short video, seen through the eyes of a child, explores the work of French scientist Leon Foucault -- a pendulum seems to rotate as it swings, but there is no external force that would cause the rotation (clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern). Through experiments, Foucault showed that it's not the pendulum doing the rotating. It's the steady, predictable movement of the Earth's rotation on its axis.

Item Type: Video Clip
Level: Grades 3-6
Duration: 5 minutes

Build your own system of heavenly bodies and watch the gravitational ballet! This orbit simulator lets users set initial position, velocity, and masses for up to 4 planets. It was designed to help students form deeper understanding of how a planet's orbit is affected by its mass, speed, and distance from its sun.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 6-12
Duration: One Class Period

References and Collections:

A comprehensive set of images of all the planets with accompanying video, statistics, and NASA exploration information.  Appropriate for middle school.  The images would be enriching for an upper elementary classroom.

Student Tutorials:

A fun and readable tutorial on the electromagnetic spectrum appropriate for middle school students.  It was also developed by the Imagine the Universe project through NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  Try using this with the lesson plan above:  "What's The Frequency, Roy B. Giv?"

Three simple and engaging animations with kid-friendly explanations of Kepler's Laws.  Appropriate for middle school classrooms with teacher guidance.