Vernier Science Education - June 2024


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Earth and Space Science

The Solar System

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Flavio Mendez Flavio Mendez 53041 Points

Dear All,

A question from a pre-service teacher from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

How should we teach about (former planet) Pluto to this generation of students?

Here is one resource:

Angie Fairweather Angelika Fairweather 12180 Points

This resource posted by Flavio :External Resource: Ceres and Pluto: Dwarf Planets as a New Way of Thinking about an Old Solar System is unique because it puts the student in the role of an astronomer deciding if a celestial body meets the criteria to be a planet. It also includes fantastic visuals of celestial planets that students can sort and discuss as a group. I would also like to include a hands-on element to this lesson. Does anyone have any ideas? This journal article, "Then There Was Eight" is rated four stars and has a correlation for inquiry and data analysis. This might include an activity. Let me know what you think. Terry Houghton

Jennifer Rahn Jennifer Rahn 67955 Points

The resource Flavio mentions is interesting for the middle school level. Great visuals and vocabulary development. For older students - upper middle and high school - the NASA site New Horizons: What We Know About Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt has a great deal of information. It could be well-suited to a webquest or other investigation. It is extremely content-rich. There is an article and activity about travelling to Pluto, but the article refers to Pluto as the "ninth planet." Pluto or Bust! is all about how scientists investigate Pluto and Charon. It contains many questions that would be great for group discussions or research at the middle school level. It may provide some ideas for teaching about Pluto. Very thought-provoking for younger (and perhaps older students) in conjunction with STEM. I agree with the previous post about "And then there were eight." I would suggest this with some prior investigation using the website above to get sufficient background information, although the resource also lists a number of websites for reference. I had hoped to find an activity that was a bit more active, but most activities focus on vocabulary. Anyone else finding activities that have more action?

Flavio Mendez Flavio Mendez 53041 Points

Dear All, Another question posted on behalf of a UMBC pre-service teacher: The Jovian planets are gaseous. What gases have scientists found in their atmospheres, and, how do scientists determine which specific gases make up these planets when they are so far away from us? Are there any resources in the Learning Center that I can use to review this material?

Alyce Dalzell Alyce Dalzell 64075 Points

NASA has several current and informative resources on Jovian Planets. Check out this link to leading educator sites and podcasts:

Enjoy your week!

Jennifer Rahn Jennifer Rahn 67955 Points

I found several interesting pieces on the NASA site related to the Cassini mission. Recent analysis of Saturn's rings by the Cassini space probe provides an interesting opportunity for students to engage in analysis of real data, and consider alternative theories of the formation and composition of the planet's satellites, especially Titan and Enceladus. Moons, Rings, and Relationships: An activity to explore the nature of gravity on Saturn, and the nature of Saturn's rings. What is Consuming Hydrogen and Acetylene on Titan? A paper discussing recent research that might be suitable for older students. It discusses complex chemical activity and the possible relationship to hypothesized "methane-based life." Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan This site contains both PD and classroom activities related to the Cassini mission to Saturn. The use of technology for delivering data back to Earth, and analysis of the data and images provide a real-world opportunity for students to integrate math, chemistry, and astrophysics. Cassini Solstice Mission: Space exploration of Saturn across the curriculum. There is a strong focus on elementary and middle school content. Several podcasts of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan are available, as well as PDF and MP3 versions of monthly science and engineering talks.

Flavio Mendez Flavio Mendez 53041 Points

Thanks Terry for posting the URL for the Marsbound activity on designing a robotic mission, in this case, to Mars.

I used this activity with the UMBC pre-service teachers to gets us talking about robotic missions to the planets, the interactions between scientists, engineers, and mission planners, and the different systems that make up a spacecraft.

Try it when you get a chance.

Greetings Earthlings! I spent some time looking at the "Solar System: A Look at the Planets" (science object: elem, middle school, and high school) to mine it for information related to both the Pluto reclassification issue and the gaseous composition of the Jovian planets. I did find that there is a good explanation about the reclassification issue in the section on "Pluto and Charon". There is also a data table and some information about the different atmospheric composition of the Jovian planets, although there is limited discussion about how scientists found out the information. Dorian Janney, Online Advisor

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

I have used the NOVA special The Pluto Files in my earth science class when teaching about Pluto. Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts the program. He was one of the astrophysicists that was instrumental in the reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. '' target="_blank"> ' target="_blank"> [" target="_blank">The Pluto Files

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

You can view the special at

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Another great resource for teaching Pluto's status as a dwarf planet is the Discovery School's "Downsized Solar System" webpage at '' target="_blank"> ' target="_blank"> " target="_blank">Your text to link here... . For elementary classes, another great resource is the book [i]Poor Pluto[i]. This book was written by a 3rd grade class and helps young students understand why Pluto is a dwarf planet. Using this resource also enables the teacher to integrate art and language arts into a science lesson.

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Here's the link to the Discovery School site. Hopefully I attached the hyperlink correctly this time!

Alyce Dalzell Alyce Dalzell 64075 Points

This short video is amazing! A group of professional astronomers had the Hubble Space Telescope pointed at absolutely nothing and left it there, first for 10 days, and then for 11 days. Next, the astronomers made the images into a 3D presentation.

In case a student asks...13 billion light years is about equal to 880,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (or 880 sextillion) miles. :)

Happy Sky Watching!

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Flavio wrote, "........Another question posted on behalf of a UMBC pre-service teacher: The Jovian planets are gaseous. What gases have scientists found in their atmospheres, and, how do scientists determine which specific gases make up these planets when they are so far away from us.....?" Hi Flavio, If your pre-service teacher is simply looking for the facts, then I recommend that he or she check out the following URL which is the home page for National Space Science Data Center. It is NASA's permanent archive for space science mission data. From there, your students can further search the Jovian planets. The Jovian planets are made mostly of hydrogen and helium, but probes have also found trace amounts of ammonia, methane, and various ices. Jupiter and Saturn have been the most studied. Jupiter has been visited by Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Ulysses, Cassini, and New Horizons. Saturn has had fewer visitors. Pioneer 11 and the Voyagers have observed it for a a time. Currently, the Cassini probe is in the neighborhood. Uranus and Neptune have only been visited briefly by Voyager 2. NASA offers a tremendous amount of information and it can be overwhelming at times. Your pre-service teacher can view each of the missions to see what was studied and how the data was collected. Personally, I like to look at the current NASA missions with my freshman earth science students. It makes science more real to them.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Flavio wrote, "Dear All, Another question posted on behalf of a UMBC pre-service teacher: The Jovian planets are gaseous. What gases have scientists found in their atmospheres, and, how do scientists determine which specific gases make up these planets when they are so far away from us? Are there any resources in the Learning Center that I can use to review this material?" Hi Flavio, The Learning Center has three resources that your pre-service teacher might enjoy. The first is a free science object called Solar System: A Look at the Planets. This resource is a two hour on-line interactive module that explores the similarities and differences among the planets of our solar system. The second resource is a fee based SciPack called The Solar System. A SciPack is a "learn on your own" online interactive. The content in the SciPack is the same as the science object, but the teacher can receive unlimited expert content help via email. The teacher also can take a final assessment to document his or her learning. A third resource is a journal article called Scope on the Skies: Of Moons and Rings. This resource discuss the features that make Saturn unique among the Jovian planets. Your pre-service teacher can cut and paste these titles into the search engine feature of the Learning Center to view these resources.

Alyce Dalzell Alyce Dalzell 64075 Points

Jupiter is giving us a show this weekend! The planet's four big moons will cast shadows on the gas giant planet that can be seen from Earth using a small telescope.

Jupiter's show will begin Nov 6, Saturday eve and continue through early Sunday morning. The planetary show will be primarily visible from the western coast of the United States but should be available to view on websites when you return to the classroom Monday morning.


Patricia Seaton Patricia Seaton 305 Points

Does anyone have access to good data/an activity that shows the discovery of Neptune? It was mathematically predicted, but I don't want my students just reading about it, I'd like them to either SEE the perturbation of Uranus's orbit, or actually plot/calcuate it for themselves.

Angie Fairweather Angelika Fairweather 12180 Points

Alyce, Thank you for recommending the Hubble video. It is amazing! Angie

Alyce Dalzell Alyce Dalzell 64075 Points

I found a timelapse video clip that shows Venus, Mars and Saturn in the August 3, 2010 night sky.


I often include links in my weekly parent email that encourages parents/guardians to initiate science related conversations with their children. If you would like to share a resource with your students and their families to access files to print free NASA posters, book covers and bookmarks have them visit:

Dorian Janney Dorian Janney 10505 Points

I like to let me students know what they might see in the Night Sky each month. Here is a url to the Amazing Space's "What's in the Night Sky This Month" - I also post this url on our school website to make parents and teachers aware of the marvels of the night sky on a monthly basis.

Alyce Dalzell Alyce Dalzell 64075 Points

Dorian, great idea to include the night sky link in your newsletters. Often around this time of year when I write my parent newsletter before winter break I start gathering links to local museums, discount admissions, and public library presentations. After receiving so many compliments on that simple act I include sites monthly. The night sky link will be a great addition. Anyone have other ideas to send home with Middle School students?? They are such a tricky age group and parents always welcome conversation starters. Enjoy your day, Alyce

Flavio, thanks for recommending the Mars Bound lesson unit. I think that it is an excellent introduction to engineering design. In practice, how much scaffolding would it require in order to result in successful outcomes based upon your experience? I like the fact that the teacher can opt to use the shortened version rather than the full unit. Terry Houghton

Alyce Dalzell Alyce Dalzell 64075 Points

Hello Friends,
I'm posting a Solar System Reader's Theatre on behalf of Laura Stock. Laura shared her Reader's Theatre on the NSTA Listserv. This creative idea allows students to utilize research skills and practice vocabulary development while visiting NASA websites to complete the Reader's Theatre.

Students' internal motivation to complete the 'story' of Pluto's demotion to dwarf planet is strengthened when they know that a student performance is in their future.

Thank you for sharing Laura. We hope you join our thread and post future ideas and activities!


Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Arlene, Wow, what a great resource! Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate being able to show current studies in science so they realize that science is happening now.

Chris Kersh Chris Kersh 530 Points

I've only been on this website for 30 minutes and already i've found more rescurces to use during my student teaching then I have in the countless hours going from one site to another without much direction. I love it!

Misty Richmond Misty Richmond 2410 Points

Thanks...that is all :)

Lorrie Armfield Lorrie Armfield 51438 Points

Here is another resource on 'Pluto'.


Solar System Exploration- Pluto (External Website)

Daniel Carroll Dan Carroll 18610 Points

I use the "Great Planet Debate" from John's Hopkins University. It is pretty good. I like part of this debate where it is stated - What is the difference? Maybe the term "planet" no longer really serves its original purpose. By some definitions Earth might be considered "not a planet". Changing the terminology doesn't really change the importance.

Lisa Coughlin Lisa Coughlin 1070 Points

I have my Astronomy students participate in a debate about whether Pluto should be considered a planet or not. Prior to the debate I have them research the following questions: • When, how, and by whom was Pluto discovered? Why was Pluto initially classified as a planet? • What is Pluto currently classified as? • What were the IAU’s reasons behind the change in planetary status? • What are the characteristics of a planet and why does Pluto fit or not fit these characteristics? • What other celestial objects in our Solar System have similar characteristics as Pluto? Do you think their planetary status should change if Pluto’s status changes? Why or why not? After they have completed their research each student has to choose a side and write a position paper that states their position on the argument, three arguments that support their position, and two counter-arguments. As a class we then hold a debate. It has worked pretty well and the students seem to enjoy the activity.

Dorian Janney Dorian Janney 10505 Points

Hi Lisa, What a creative way to integrate current findings with background research and allow students to take a personal stand, once they have researched and learned about both sides. Also a great activity to help students become critical thinkers and informed citizens! Awesome idea! Thanks so much for sharing this with us! Dorian Janney

Flavio Mendez Flavio Mendez 53041 Points

Dear All, Looking for resources to teach about planet Mercury and orbit insertion. How about Learning Center PD resources, has anyone created a collection. If so, please post it here. Thanks, Flavio.

Flavio Mendez Flavio Mendez 53041 Points

Thanks Arlene for the link to the collection about the mission MESSENGER. It is great, including PPT presentation from a web seminar presenter and the web seminar archive's link also. This mission is a true example of STEM...including the Engineering element. How to send a spacecraft millions of miles away to an environment so hostile like Mercury's orbit with extreme temperatures and bombarded by the solar wind. I can't wait for the images and new science discoveries. Amazing! Are there teachers out there that would like to share your thoughts on this mission, and more importantly, are you talking about it with your students in school? Flavio.

Allison Baker Allison Baker 595 Points

One aspect of teaching the solar system that I think teachers don't have enough resources on is how to make the solar system relatable to children through cartoons. There are many cartoons that have to do with space but one that helped me learn a lot about the solar system was Sailor Moon. I know it sounds silly but I leared a lot about the terrestrial and extraterrestrial planets from watching the show. Also, the characters that represent each planet act like their planet. For instance Sailor Mars is confrentational and constantly gets heated, much like the massive volcanoes found on her planet. Sailor Moon has a dramatic plot and appeals to chidlren in 4th -6th grade. Maybe instead of being entertaining, it can be used as an educational tool, too. Just a thought! -Allison

Heather Burns Heather Burns 460 Points

This is more a content question than a pedagogical one, but do scientists know yet how Saturn's moon Titan was formed? I'm just wondering how its atmosphere can be so vastly different from Saturn itself. Scientists compare Titan to a very primitive Earth, while Saturn is gas giant incapable of supporting life as we know it for many reasons. Does anyone know of any resources that address this, either NSTA or other? I'm working on the Invent an Alien project for Flavio Mendez, and Saturn is my planet. My research has made me very curious about Titan, so I'll definitely be following the Cassini mission. Thanks, Heather - UMBC elem ed student

Dehrben Flores dehrben Flores 135 Points

hai is there anybody who can help me understand the big bang theory?

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Dehrben wrote, 'hai is there anybody who can help me understand the big bang theory?'

Hi Dehrben,

Check out the Science Object Universe: The Origin and Evolution of the Universe . It is a free resource and it would be a great place to start.
You can also perform a key word search of the Learning Center. There are three NASA resources that look promising.

You might also look on the NASA website directly. You can also do a key word search on their website. They have many resources that explain the big bang theory. Look under the 'For educators' tab in the upper left hand corner.

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Hi Dehrben, Ruth's resources are excellent. Thanks, Ruth. Might I also suggest the Elegant Universe. There was a discussion thread started a few months back with some information that may be of interest to you. You can access it at this URL: You will find the link to the Elegant Universe there as well.

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Chris said, I've only been on this website for 30 minutes and already i've found more resources to use during my student teaching then I have in the countless hours going from one site to another without much direction. I love it!" I know what you mean, Chris. It doesn't seem to matter if you have been teaching 0 years or 30 - this website is the number one place for science resources. You are lucky to have found it early on in your career. Please DO let us know how your student teaching is (has been)going. Carolyn

Dehrben Flores Dehrben Flores 135 Points

thanks maam ruth and maam carolyn

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Another great solar system resource is Reading, Writing, and Rings. This cross-curricular science and language arts program focuses on Cassini and Saturn in a K-4 classroom.


Caryn Meirs Caryn Meirs 26235 Points

Thanks Maureen - I haven't seen this before - any tips on using it in the classroom? I have a hard time getting students enthusiastic about unmanned spacecraft - I think there is so much there and so cool and the kids just look at me like I've gone round the twist when I talk about bus and payload, trajectory etc. Rocket launch they like...looking at landsat images...much harder sell. Anyone have ideas?
by the way NASA's spaceplace recently had a makeover - I use it as great place to find kid friendly information and lots of informal activities, things I might assign as optional or for home-school connection building, then let the kids see where their own interests take them.

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Hi Caryn, Reading, Writing, and Rings is a great program that incorporates science and language arts. I have used it as an extension of my language arts program in my classroom to encourage young students to write and read about Saturn. Maureen

Michael Young Michael Young 260 Points

A cheap alternative to a class trip is to create a planetarium in the classroom. There are cheap projectors you can use in the class room and have students view the constellations from the ground above. I did this in front of a bunch of peers and what a response I received. It opened the mind to greater thinking.

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Michael Young, July 27, 8:07 PM
A cheap alternative to a class trip is to create a planetarium in the classroom. There are cheap projectors you can use in the class room and have students view the constellations from the ground above. I did this in front of a bunch of peers and what a response I received. It opened the mind to greater thinking.

That's a great idea Michael! You can purchase planetarium projectors starting at around $40. Another idea is to use glow in the dark paint or glow in the dark star stickers to DIY a planetarium in your classroom.

Caryn Meirs Caryn Meirs 26235 Points

Michael and Maureen - a white tarp suspended as tightly as possible above you (I used cable ties to my drop down florescent light fixtures), a darkened classroom, your projector pointed straight up and google sky work wonders too!

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Hi Caryn, Michael, Maureen and other thread participants, I have always used the software program "Starry Night Backyard" when I teach Astronomy. I am wondering if the projection of a night sky using the projectors you have mentioned is better. Does anyone have experience with both to give me some feedback?

Caryn Meirs Caryn Meirs 26235 Points

Carolyn - Have you thought about posting this question to the listserv?

Megan Dehning Megan Dehning 390 Points

Great! Thanks for the link. Whenever I have students brainstorm questions about astronomy, the subject of Pluto always comes up!

Mrs Hawk Catherine Hawkins 2400 Points

Thanks for all the great links, articles and resources posted in this forum! I have a million ideas floating around in my tools now for the next time I teach SPACE!

Eunice Kim Eunice Kim 445 Points

I use to watch Sailor Moon and after I read the comment about Sailor Moon and how their characters match some qualities of their planet I looked it up and thought how great of an idea that was for a show. Just something I learned as I was reading these posts. At UMBC we are working on a 3-d alien project and I think it is a great way to teach students. For our assignment we have to each create an alien but to teach students I think teachers can do the same thing or create an alien together as a class. I think the first thing is to decide what a planet is and when students learn about planets they can create the solar system but when teaching about Pluto the class can learn why it's not a planet but a dwarf planet and design a 3-d alien from what they learned. Students can also make 3-d aliens for each planet and make on for Pluto and compare and contrast Pluto to the other planets and maybe the students can learn the differences between what a planet is and what a dwarf planet is.

Lauren Clark Lauren Clark 595 Points

I agree with Eunice- The Invent an Alien project was a great way to learn about what comprises our solar system. As mentioned, each student was assigned a planet, moon, astroid, etc. and had to make a 3-d model representing their assignment's features. I had Saturn and created a giant alien that was a yellow-brown color, had rings, a helium balloon, ice cube trays and so on. Students can be assigned Pluto and make up a similar model and teach it to their classmates. Of course, teacher assistance would be needed as well as resources as to why it isn't a planet anymore. I also think it is a great idea to write a play about Pluto. Perhaps the play can consist of a narrator, and one person per planet in the solar system, including Pluto. Each planet can describe traits about themselves and when it comes to Neptune, there could be conflict between Neptune and Pluto. The Narrator could act as the mediator between the two planets and emphasize how important Pluto remains even though it cannot be a planet anymore. I am a huge advocate of bringing the arts into science and believe this would be a perfect way to do that!

Jacqueline Nuha-Tabernero Jacqueline Nuha 2320 Points

After having a discussion on what makes a planet a planet I would introduce Pluto as being previously a part of the solar system. Then I would address that it is currently considered a dwarf planet based on the fact it “does not have enough gravity to attract all of the space dust and tiny objects in its path.” (Smith, 2009). Following that, I would have my students look at other plutoids (Eris and Makemake) and provide them research about what makes them plutoids. Pluto is very much still a part of solar system and I believe it important to teach about it’s history. I found the NASA website to be quite helpful. Does anyone have an interactive site that students could explore using the Smart Board?

Shannon Hudson Shannon Hudson 2555 Points

Have middle schoolers research the reasoning behind the decisions and then have a debate

Alayna Maldonado Alayna Maldonado 1750 Points

I definitely think that we should teach about Pluto as a dwarf planet. It is important to teach students that Pluto was considered a planet at one time, but is no longer classified as such. It demonstrates how science is never set in stone, but constantly changing and evolving due to new technology and theories. Because at one time in history Pluto was a planet, using that as an example will help teachers show students characteristics of dwarf planets. It is important to show how this discovery/conclusion led the way to discovering many more dwarf planets.

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