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Grade Level:5-8
Curriculum Focus:Space Science, Earth Science, Math

Project Overview

Online Components

National Standards Correlations

Using the Project in Your Classroom


     Web Sites

Project Overview

Although space can be a popular and exciting topic for your students, describing the Universe presents quite a challenge. Its history, size, and elements may be difficult to grasp since they often can't compare to anything we understand on Earth. "Understanding the Universe" introduces your students to important concepts of the Universe: where the Earth fits into the larger picture of the Universe, how vast and far away places are in the Universe, and the prevailing theory about when and how it all began. Students will also learn about important scientists and astronomers that have contributed to our knowledge of the Universe. And finally, they will explore galaxies, the "building blocks" of the Universe - from our own Milky Way to other galaxies both nearby and near the other side of the Universe.

This project was developed by Discovery Channel School in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History.

Onlince Components

This area is designed to introduce students to the incredible size and history of the Universe. Three different sections include:

? Light Years:Students will learn why astronomers use light years to measure vast distances in space, what a light year represents, and how the distance is calculated. With "Telescope as Time Machine," students learn the distance of specific objects in space, and that when we view these objects, we are looking back in time - the amount of time it has taken light from that object to reach us.
? Cosmic Calendar:This section explains the age of the Universe. Beginning with a timeline, students will learn how many billions of years ago the Universe originated, the Milky Way formed, the Sun and Planets formed, and so on. Then the "Universe in One Year" puts these dates in a different context, showing the history of the Universe compressed into one year - from the Big Bang on January 1st to Christopher Columbus' voyage one second before midnight.
? Mind Game:This multiple-choice game gets kids thinking about the amazing distances and sizes in the Universe. Students are challenged to use concepts of space science and math skills to answer questions about distances within the Solar System, our galaxy and beyond.
In this activity, students learn about important scientists and astronomers who have contributed to our understanding of the Universe. From Copernicus to the modern-day scientists who found evidence of the Big Bang, students will see how each individual's discovery or observation led to a new theory or understanding of space - and how each scientist was able to build on the knowledge of those who came before him.

Galaxy Tour
Galaxies are important components within the Universe. This tour introduces to students to galaxies - from their basic makeup to their different shapes. Their journey begins in the Milky Way, then takes them to neighboring galaxies, unusual galaxies, and the farthest galaxies ever known. Along the way, they'll find audio clips where they can listen to an expert's answers to kids questions about galaxies. Our guest is Frank Summers, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.

National Standards Correlations

This content and activities in this project helps students meet the following content standards for grades 5-8, as described in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council).

  Earth and Space Science
Students should develop understanding of
  ? Structure of the earth system
  ? Earth's history
  ? Earth in the solar system
  History and Nature of Science
Students should develop understanding of
  ? Science as a human endeavor
  ? Nature of science
  ? History of science
  Physical Science
Students should develop understanding of
  ? Properties and changes of properties in matter
  ? Motions and forces

Using the Project in Your Classroom

Following are some suggestions for implementing "Understanding the Universe" in your classroom.

What Do You Know?
Introduce this project by brainstorming what students know and would like to know about the Universe. Some questions to spark discussion might be: How far away is the moon? The sun? Pluto? Would it take hours, days, or years to travel to these places in an airplane? Could an astronaut travel to the other side of the galaxy, to another galaxy, or the other side of the Universe? When and how did the Universe begin? Where does our Solar System fit into the Universe? What is a galaxy? Are we a part of the Milky Way? Why do people often say you're looking "back in time" when you look at the stars? You may wish to use each of these questions as a starting point for a discussion of what kids already know, then break the class into small groups. Assign each group one or two questions and have them explore the project, then come together to present their what they've learned about the Universe.

Finding the Earth in the Universe
Ask students how they would explain their address to someone who lived in another country. They might say their street address, city, state, and country. Now ask them to think about how they would describe the Earth's location to someone in another galaxy. Explain that the Earth is just one planet that revolves around the sun in the Solar System. The sun is just one of billions of stars within the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way is one of 30 galaxies in a "cluster" of galaxies called the Local Group. And the local group is just one cluster within a "supercluster" called the Virgo Supercluster. The Virgo Cluster is a tiny part of the entire Universe. Have students use this information to write their "space address":

Solar System
Milky Way
Local Group

How Big is the Universe?
Once students learn how Earth fits into the large picture of the Universe, explain that the sizes and distances within the Universe are often difficult to imagine. For example, even if we could travel at the speed of light - the fastest speed possible - it would take over 4 years to reach the nearest star, the Solar System's nearest neighbor. A good place to begin is It's AWESOME. Have students explore Light Years and discuss the reasons astronomers use this unit of measurement. What do astronomers know about objects they view billions of light years away? Encourage students to create their own Telescope as Time Machine on the classroom bulletin board. Have them research other interesting objects in space, find out how far away each object is, and what was happening in history at the time light left that object.

Take a Trip into the Universe
To bring these vast distances to life, challenge kids to the Mind Game: Think Big, where they travel aboard the fictional "Seeker 2000" from planet Earth, into the Solar System, the Milky Way, and beyond. This game should also reinforce what students have learned about Earth's place in space, or its "space address." Divide students into small groups to create their own "Mind Games" using concepts from the game and their own resources about distances and sizes in the Universe.

How it All Began: A Short History of the Universe
Launch your discussion about the origin of the Universe with the Cosmic Calendar. What lead scientists to the Big Bang theory? (Note: Concepts related to the Big Bang theory may be difficult to grasp - it's impossible to imagine all of the matter and energy of the Universe being compressed into something smaller than an item. You might want to talk about this as one of the challenges of being a scientists or astronomer. The laws of physics cannot always explain phenomena in space.) Have students research theories of how the Universe may end, from the expanding universe to the "Big Crunch."

Review the Timeline of the Universe, which begins with the Big Bang occurring 13 billion years ago, to learn when our galaxy, sun, and Earth formed. The Universe in One Year looks at these events and the evolution of life on Earth in a new way. Before you show students this section, ask them to imagine the Universe as compressed into one single year - with the current time the moment of the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. Ask them to predict when certain events would have occurred if the Big Bang happened on New Year's Day. In what month do they think the Sun would form? In what month would the first plant appear? How many months or day would the dinosaurs roam the Earth? After viewing the calendar, ask students what events and dates surprised them most. Challenge them to estimate what the "Earth in One Year" might look like, with the formation of Earth on January 1st.

Explore the Galaxies!
Next, have students take the online Galaxy Tour, where they'll learn about these "cities of stars" and visit a few galaxies from our own Milky Way to "ancient" galaxies from the distant past. At each stop along the way, encourage kids to listen to the "Answers from the Expert" and learn amazing facts about galaxies. When they've completed the journey, divide the class into small groups and have each team create their own "Space Tour." For example, they might want to tour the planets, stars, or other galaxies.

How Have We Learned About the Universe?
Have students visit Space Pioneers to learn about just a few of the many scientists and astronomers who have helped us understand the cosmos. As students read the short bios, ask them to think about how each scientist was able to build on the knowledge or theories of those that came before him. Have students create a "Space Pioneers Yearbook" with a 3-ring binder. Start by adding print-outs of the scientists featured online, then have students research other significant scientists and add their bios to the "yearbook."


Big Bang: The Story of the Universeby Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest (Dorling Kindersley, 1997)
Deep Space Astronomyby Gregory Vogt (Twenty First Century Books, 1999)
Galaxiesby Seymour Simon (Morrow Junior Books, 1998)
Exploring the Origins of the Universeby Stuart A. Kallen (Twenty First Century Books, 1997)
The Kingfisher Young People's Book of Spaceby Martin Redfern (Kingfisher Books, 1998)
The New York Public Library Amazing Space: A Book of Answers for Kids(New York Public Library Answer Books for Kids) illustrated by Ann Campbell (John Wiley & Sons, 1997)
The Universeby Seymour Simon (Morrow Junior Books, 1998)
Visual Dictionary of the Universe(Eyewitness Visual Dictionaries) (Dorling Kindersley, 1993)

Web Sites
Windows to the Universe

A Virtual Journey Into the Universe (ThinkQuest site)
Amazing Space Web-Based Activities
Cosmic Quest
Mysteries of Deep Space: History of the Universe Timeline
Origins: Timeline of the Universe
How Big is the Universe?
Discovery Channel School's Sky Watch

Discovery Channel School Videos
Discover Magazine: How Big Is My Universe?
Understanding: The Universe


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