Need a lesson to reinforce the concept of a line’s slope in a mathematics class? How about one to examine world events in 1919 for a history class? Or a creative writing assignment to create a science-fiction story for a language arts class?
NASA has a lesson plan for that. That’s right, NASA.
It might seem natural to use NASA content in the astronomy, earth science or even physical science classroom. But those of us working in education at NASA like to push the envelope and find alternate ways to bring NASA’s cool astronomy to students. Chemistry and math are easy fits with NASA content, but history and language arts? Of course!
This article will provide three examples of NASA materials for the classroom, spanning topics from astronomy to history and math to language arts. For grades 6–12, these materials easily work into your curriculum standards and assist you in developing interesting activities for your students. Each example was developed with teachers and has been field-tested to ensure its usability and appropriateness. The materials in this article come from the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC) Education group, which is a part of the Astrophysics Education and Public Outreach group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
I hope these examples leave you wanting more. The depth of the content will interest your students, and you can benefit from the work of other teachers and experts. NASA has vast array of projects – from human space exploration to Earth-looking satellites, from aeronautics research to satellite-based telescopes. Each of those projects has a mandate to include education activities as part of its overall program. With so many programs, there will be something for nearly every classroom need – from lessons covering different National Education Standards, to those reaching a variety of learning styles.
To find the right materials for your classroom, start at the NASA Education portal. There you will find links for grade levels from elementary through college that lead to highlighted materials for those specific grades. If you want to perform a more specific search, then you’ll want to use the material finding tool linked on the main NASA Education portal. Using this tool you can narrow your search using keywords, specifying a grade level, and choosing types of materials (bookmarks, lessons, lithographs, etc.) that you would like to find. The tool will then return a list of NASA materials that have been reviewed by a panel of education experts. In this way you can find trusted materials tailored to the needs of your classroom.
NASA Education: www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/index.html
Find Teaching Materials: http://search.nasa.gov/search/edFilterSearch.jsp?empty=true
I. Cosmic Times: literacy, history and science rolled into one
Cosmic Times is a series of six newspaper front-pages with dates chosen to highlight key moments in the past century that lead to our current understanding of the universe. It spans our knowledge of 20th-century cosmology, tracing the path scientists have taken to solve the biggest question facing astronomers: what is the nature of our universe? In the process, the Cosmic Times suite of curriculum support materials provides readings and lesson plans that meet National Educational Standards in science, language arts, and social studies.
The Cosmic Times project was born out of the crazy notion that we could develop a lesson plan about dark energy, the mysterious “stuff” in our universe that is driving it to expand ever faster. The project turned into much more than a simple lesson plan on the nature of dark energy, morphing into a suite of readings and lesson plans. However, while Cosmic Times can be taught as a comprehensive unit, the materials are designed to be flexible for today’s classroom, so that a single lesson or reading can be used to supplement existing classroom teachings.
The dates for Cosmic Times issues were chosen based on input from several cosmologists from across the country, and each corresponds to a significant milestone leading to our current understanding of the universe:
- 1919: the first confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity by two groups of astronomers measuring the bending of starlight around the eclipsed sun.
- 1929: Edwin Hubble discovers that our universe is expanding, with all but the closest galaxies speeding away from us.
- 1955: Einstein’s death coincides with the debate between the Steady State and Big Bang theories of the origin of our universe.
- 1965: the first observation of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), light produced shortly after the Big Bang that permeates the universe.
- 1993: the first all-sky map of the CMB, along with refinements to Big Bang cosmology based on observations.
- 2006: the revelation that the universe is not only expanding but accelerating, contrary to expectations; the culprit is named dark energy, but its nature is largely a mystery.
Each Cosmic Times issue contains one or two articles related to the main discovery. Additional articles provide historic context and introduce new concepts that will become important in future issues. In addition, each issue has several associated lesson plans exploring science and social topics surrounding that issues articles.
Each issue of Cosmic Times is available in a variety of formats and reading levels. The Cosmic Times poster for each issue was created to give visual interest, with each poster mimicking the style of a newspaper from the respective era; free copies of the posters can be ordered from the Cosmic Times website. The poster text is written at an upper high-school level (grades 11–12). The Cosmic Times newsletters contain the readings in an easy-to-print PDF format and are available in three reading levels: the “early edition” targets grades 7–8, the “home edition” is for grades 9–10, and the “late edition” contains the original poster text for grades 11–12. The Cosmic Times online edition presents the “home edition” version of the readings.
Standards-based lesson plans
Each issue of Cosmic Times is accompanied by a variety of inquiry-based lesson plans that follow the 5E (engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate) learning cycle. The lessons give students the opportunity to reinforce science concepts, examine the social context in which the discoveries take place, and interact with the data used in the discoveries.
Science Lesson Plans: Many of the lesson plans explore the numerous science concepts surrounding the discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the nature of our universe. “Determining the Universe” is a lesson plan accompanying the 1929 Cosmic Times that asks students to reproduce Hubble’s proof that our universe is expanding; it reinforces the concepts of redshift (Doppler shift), distance determination, and reading science graphs. A lesson plan with the 1965 Cosmic Times, “What’s the Matter?” has students explore the density of objects as a model for how astronomers came to understand the existence of dark matter, highlighting the concepts of density and the process of science.
Multi-disciplinary Lesson Plans: While the primary story of Cosmic Times is a scientific one, the framework allows for lesson plans that touch upon other disciplines, such as history and language arts. The “Reading Strategies” lesson plan (accompanying the 1965 issue, although it applies across all) presents reading strategies to help students interact with the articles for a better understanding of the concepts. One of the lessons associated with the 1919 issue, “Einstein and His Times,” invites students to look at the social events in the world at the same time as Einstein’s rise to fame following the confirmation of his theory of relativity to decide if he should be voted the 1919 Man of the Year. The capstone lesson plan, “Cosmic Times 2019”, asks students to project a few years into the future to produce a new issue of the newspaper that projects how our current understanding of the universe has advanced by the year 2019 (see sidebar on p. 15)
Flexibility and navigation of the materials
We understand that most classes cannot devote weeks to a new unit, so the Cosmic Times articles and lesson plans were designed to stand on their own as a way to supplement existing curriculum. To make it easy to find materials to complement your classroom, we have made several tools available on the Cosmic Times website.
Teachers’ Guide: The Teachers’ Guide walks you through each issue of the Cosmic Times. The guide includes a list and summary of the articles and lesson plans, detailed notes for each article, links for the newsletter versions of the articles, a link to the full-sized poster file, and supplemental handouts for students (a glossary and questions for understanding).
Keyword Clouds: A keyword cloud is a tool that can be used to find materials associated with a particular topic. In the keyword cloud, keywords are presented in a size proportional to the number of times they are associated with a Cosmic Times article or lesson plan. Clicking a keyword will bring up a list of all the articles and lesson plans associated with that keyword. This is a great tool to use to find materials to either fill in gaps in your current curriculum or to supplement existing materials on a particular topic.
Master Download Page: Amidst a mountain of materials, the Master Download Page allows you to download single files or bundles of lesson plans associated with each Cosmic Times issue.
II. Cosmic Connection to the Elements
Ever wonder where the gold in a pair of earrings came from? Or the carbon in our bodies? What about the oxygen we breathe?
While the saying “we are made of star-stuff” might sound like a cliché, it is true, as you and your students will discover through the “What is your cosmic connection to the elements?” poster and booklet set.
Elements have been created throughout the history of our universe, starting just after the Big Bang and continuing today in stars, supernovae, and cosmic rays. Our “What is your cosmic connection to the elements?” poster presents the Periodic Table of the Elements, showing the primary cosmic sources for each element. The booklet gives background information on how to use the materials with your classroom, including eight lesson plans that tie together chemistry, physics, math and astronomy.
The lesson plans were created to reach a variety of learners — including artistic, visual, and kinesthetic. For example, in the “Kinesthetic Big Bang,” students become the protons and neutrons present shortly after the Big Bang and model the formation of elements through their movements. The “What’s Out There?” lesson plan gives students a visual representation of the elemental composition of objects in the universe, including a supernova, the sun, and the human body using non-perishable food found in the kitchen. The “Nickelodeon” activity gives students an auditory experience of spectra of different elements.
Free copies of the poster and booklet can be requested from our website. Electronic copies are also available.
III. Imagine the Universe classroom materials
NASA’s Imagine the Universe website gives students and teachers a glimpse at how high-energy astronomy (i.e., the study of X-rays and gamma-rays from cosmic objects) are used to probe the structure and evolution of the universe. The web pages contain information on the tools high-energy astronomers use and the objects that they study. The site also features a Teachers’ Corner with a variety of curriculum materials.
Stand-alone lesson plans
The Teacher’s Corner hosts a selection of lesson plans for grades six through 12. Use the light curve of a binary star system to determine the size of a star while teaching number relationships, algebra, patterns and functions, and statistics (“How Big is that Star?” lesson plan). Teach students how astronomers take images while touching on algebra, statistics, and discrete mathematics (“Get the Picture!” lesson plan). Most of the stand-alone lesson plans can be done in one or two class periods and satisfy a variety of math and science standards.
Poster and booklet sets
The poster and booklet sets in the Teacher’s Corner each go into depth on one type of astronomical object or concept – stars, black holes, and galaxies. The poster is intended to be an engagement tool for the classroom, while the booklet contains background information and lesson plans to help reinforce the new concepts for your classroom. Currently the only poster/booklet set we have available in physical form is the “Cosmic Elements” discussed earlier in this article. However, the booklets and a full-resolution version of each are available for download in our Teacher’s Corner so you can print your own.
Dr. Barbara Mattson is an associate research scientist with USRA/CRESST on contract to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She has worked in education and public outreach with several NASA satellites in Goddard’s Astrophysics Science Division over the past seven years, and is currently the Acting Education and Public Outreach Lead for NASA’s Physics of the Cosmos and Cosmic Origins Programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.