Web Offers a Galaxy of Astronomy Resources for Teachers

By Rob Klindt

While summer days are long and nights are short, that doesn’t mean students have to be bored.

Teachers can engage students by incorporating astronomy into back-to-school lesson plans during August and September. To begin learning about the stars, planets and other celestial bodies, all students need to do is look to web, and the night sky.

To help teachers get started, the National Education Association offers “Watching the Summer Night Sky,” a robust collection of astronomy lessons, activities and curriculum resources designed specifically for students in Grades K-5 and 9-12.

One of the most exciting celestial sights in the night sky is the annual Perseids meteor shower, which peaks in mid-August and continues for several days. This offers teachers an opportunity to make a fun learning assignment that will start the school year off on a high note.

Picture of the Perseids meteor shower courtesy of Nasa.gov

A meteor streaks over Japan during the Perseids meteor shower, which happens every summer in August and September. Picture courtesy of NASA.gov

To start, discuss the meteor shower in class and let students know where, when and how to look for it in the night sky. As homework, students should keep a written journal of what they see each evening. If they see meteors, they should write down the time and date and be prepared to compare notes with others in class the next day.

Tracking the evening sky

Once students are engaged with astronomy, it’s time to learn about the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations and how they can affect life on earth. Tides, eclipses and even directions based on star positions and constellations can be easily calculated and tracked using simple arithmetic.

Among the celestial events students can track during late summer and fall:

  • New views of stars and constellations. As the Earth rotates, new stars appear on the horizon while constellations appear to move across the sky.
  • Moon phases. The view of Earth’s closest celestial neighbor changes dramatically as it orbits the planet throughout the month and during the seasons.
  • Sun and moon eclipses. The movements of the sun, earth and moon all provide opportunities to see unusual views of celestial bodies, shadows and light.

But it doesn’t end there.

During fall and winter, the skies  are ablaze with occasional stray comets and regularly appearing meteor showers including the Orionids in October, Leonids in November and the Geminids in December. Based on their experience with the Perseids, give students a chance to track these showers and predict when they will peak.

Astronomy teaching tools

Once you’ve spurred student interests by searching the night sky, there are many tools available on the Web to help you develop astronomy lessons and exercises.

Among teaching tools are:

  • Kidsastronomy.com. Developed for students in grades K-6, this cool site offers interactive tours through the solar system, word games, shape puzzles, printable coloring books and updated sky maps to help track the movement of stars and planets.
    Visit the site
  • Stardate.org. The University of Texas and McDonald Observatory offer an excellent collection of lesson plans and classroom activities that K-12 teachers can use to incorporate astronomy into their science curriculum. A premium “Stardate in the Classroom” plan also is available at a special teacher rate of $50 and includes custom multimedia files and educator resources.
    Visit the site
  • NASA for Educators. NASA offers a stunning array of free science-based printed materials, multimedia, quizzes and experiments for students of all ages. Subjects include astronomy, aeronautics, mathematics and physics.
    Visit the site
  • NASA.gov. Look for a wide collection of copyright-free historical and contemporary photos, 3D models animation, videos, podcasts and other interactive programs focusing on astronomy, geology, Earth science and climatology. Also worth watching are live news events streaming on NASA TV.
    Visit the site
  • Space.com. If you’re looking for instructional videos, this site offers one of the best collections of programs focusing on meteors, planets, galaxies, black holes and other phenomena. Each video runs from three to five minutes and is preceded by a short commercial.
    Visit the site

Another excellent resource for astronomy education is the Astronomical Society of The Pacific, which offers a wide variety of activities, quizzes, lesson plans and online games designed for grades K-12.