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The Universe iconThe Universe
Project Ideas
Looking for ways to help your students grasp their universe?Here are eight ideas that you can turn into individual or classroom projects.
Check out Cosmic: The Universe Fileswhich includes similar activities.
  1. Sizing Up the Stars.
    Astronomers use their own version of the "hang ten" sign of a closed fist with thumb and pinky extended-it measures about a 20-degree distance of the sky when holding your hand out at arm's length (a length roughly the same as the Big Dipper). A closed fist measures about 10 degrees, and one finger equals one degree. Measure your night sky using this method. How many degrees wide are Orion and Ursa Major? How many degrees is it to the next big constellation? Check your measurements against a detailed star chart.
  2. Gravity Wells.
    Gravity affects how stars are formed. You can see for yourself how star formation works with two shallow bowls of different sizes, newspaper, and a bag of sand. Spread open the newspaper and place the two bowls on it. Pour out the sand in a wide swath, so that it falls into and around each bowl. What happens to the sand in the bowls? What do you think the sand outside the bowls represents? How does the size of the bowl affect the outcome?
  3. Powers of Ten.
    Scientists save space writing very large and very small numbers by using scientific notation, which is also called "powers of ten." For example, instead of writing 150,000,000,000 for the distance from Earth to the sun, it is written as 1.5 x 1011 m. This mathematical shorthand indicates how many times 10 is multiplied by itself. Find the following distances, and then convert them to powers of ten: from Earth to Saturn; one light-year; to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star; and the diameters of the Milky Way Galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy.
  4. Going to School.
    Since ancient times people have used the sun to navigate. Picture your route to school. Now pretend that there are no signs or streets to guide you there. How would you use the sun to get to school? What natural objects (trees, large boulders, etc.) could help you find your way? How would you know if you were late for school?
  5. It's Classified.
    In 1896 astronomer Annie Jump Cannon began classifying stars in categories from hottest to coolest. The International Astronomical Union adopted her system in 1910. Before Cannon devised the system, astronomers didn't really know what they were seeing when they looked at the night sky. Still, they made detailed observations and used a brightness scale (1 was the brightest and 5 the dimmest). Draw a picture of 10 stars in your night sky, then classify them according to the 1-5 brightness scale.
  6. The Speed of Light.
    Alpha Centauri is the closest star to Earth. Use library or Internet resources to research this star. Trace the star's light journey to Earth. How long did it take light from Alpha Centauri to get here? Sirius is the brightest star seen from Earth. Determine its light journey and compare it with that of Alpha Centauri.
  7. Sungazing.
    Stonehenge, built by humans between 4000 and 1500 B.C., is a large circle of stones near Salisbury, England. No one knows exactly how ancient peoples used Stonehenge, but some scientists say they are lined up precisely enough to mark the seasons and to predict eclipses of the sun and moon. Create your own observatory based on the structure of Stonehenge. Stand outside with your back against a tree or wall. Look toward the setting sun (without staring directly into it!). Is it near a telephone pole, rooftop, or other object in front of you? After several days, see if you detect the sun setting nearer or farther away from that object. Write and draw your observations; take photos, if possible.
  8. Count the Stars.
    Estimate the number of stars you can see on a clear dark night. On an 8-inch square of construction paper, cut out the middle of the square, leaving a one-inch border. Tape a piece of string (about 16 inches long) to one corner of the paper and the other end of your shoulder. Look through the frame at the stars; it divides the sky into 40 pieces. Hold the frame steady and count the number stars you see inside it. Do this five times in different parts of the sky. When you're done, write down the number of stars you see. Divide this number by 5, and then multiply that answer by 40.