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Classroom Activities

Classroom Activities

The following chart summarizes the classroom activities we've developed in our outreach program and indicates the grade levels for which each activity is geared. Any of these activities can be integrated into a visit to the Observatory's Waimea headquarters or a visit to your school. Click on the title for a more detailed description of an activity.
Activity Appropriate Grade Levels
K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
Introductory Topics
What Do You See in the Moon? X      
Our Solar System X X X  
The Moon and Its Phases X X X  
Curious about Comets? X X X  
Intermediate Topics
Play-Dough Planets   X    
Make a Model Solar System   X X  
Is Pluto a Planet?   X X X
Advanced Topics
Life in the Universe     X X
Star Light, Star Bright     X X
The Nature of Light     X X
Cosmology: Our Place in Space       X
Cratering Blast       X

What Do You See in the Moon? As Earth's closest neighbor and orbital partner, the Moon is scientifically important but is also very significant to many cultures, both ancient and modern, due to its prominent place in the night sky. Many cultures have perceived various images in the face of the moon and developed stories, myths, art, and literature featuring the moon. This classroom activity will have fun reviewing the cultural impact of the moon and invites the students to observe the moon for themselves, use their imagination, and share their images and stories with the rest of the class. The activity also introduces some basic science regarding Luna. This activity is geared towards early learners, typically kindergarten age.
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Our Solar System This visit is geared towards younger audiences (grades K-6) and introduces students to our nearest neighbors in the sky. Our Solar System talks about the Sun, the Moon, the planets, asteroids, and comets. We discuss the relative sizes, masses, and distances between objects in the solar system. We can emphasize solar system topics in the news. Recently, we've involved the students in a lively "debate" about the definition of a planet and we've talked about bright comets the students may see.
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The Moon and Its Phases The Moon has important influences on our Earth. During this talk, we will discuss the phases of the moon, tides, and eclipses, as well as compare the Moon with moons from other planets. People's behavior is sometime influenced by the moon, and in this talk, I will reveal why the Moon rules my life. Appropriate for students in grades K-8.
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Curious about Comets? Available for students in all grades, Curious About Comets begins with a brief review of a comet's place in the solar system then dives into what is a comet. These wanderers have been important through history as omens (good and bad!) and continue to impress sky watchers with their brilliance, tails, and colors.
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Play-Dough Planets An activity for grades K-6, Play-Dough Planets lets the students get a hands-on measurement of the sizes of planets in our solar system. At the beginning, the students are given a few planet facts, then asked to break into small groups and create the solar system. Towards the end, we'll show the students how big (and small!) some planets really are. This activity requires some prep work. We ask the class to provide the Play-doh. We even have a recipe if a parent wants to make their own Play-doh.
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Make a Model Solar System Its hard for anyone to really grasp just how big distances in space are, but when students help construct a real scale model of our Solar System they come away with a much better appreciation for the vastness of the Universe. Appropriate for grades 3-8, this activity can be tailored to include more math for students in the older grades.
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Is Pluto a Planet? Nothing has changed about Pluto itself. It is still a very large world (approximately two thirds the diameter of our moon). It is nearly spherical and orbits the Sun in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Pluto lies approximately 40 times further from the Sun than the Earth-to-Sun distance.

What has changed is our knowledge of what is out there. Using large telescopes like those at the W. M. Keck Obseravtory, equipped with adaptive optics systems that let us see right through our blurring atmosphere, astronomers have discovered a "belt" of objects of which Pluto is only one of the larger members. Because there are so many objects like Pluto in this belt, the organization of astronomers which has been assigned the task of naming and classifying the millions of objects orbiting the Sun, has reclassified Pluto. Pluto is now classified, along with other large worlds like Eris and Ceres, as a "dwarf planet". Pluto is therefore no longer a member of the class of major planets, of which there are only 8: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus.

But it's still cool.
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Life in the Universe One of the most fundamental scientific questions is "are we alone" or "is there life elsewhere in the universe"? This question has profound implications for earth based life and has inspired many scientists, pseudo-scientists, authors, film makers, artists, etc. to take up the question. This classroom activity is based on the natural curiosity that students have regarding this question while keeping the discussion steered toward a foundation of science. Topics covered include comparing life on earth to possible life elsewhere, the discovery of planets in other solar systems, the likelihood of other planets in habitable zones, the techniques of searching for life, the techniques of searching for intelligent life, and the likelihood of the existence of extra-terrestrial life.
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Star Light, Star Bright Everything in our world was manufactured in nature's original factory: the center of a star. And all the light we see in the sky comes from stars. In this activity (ideal for students in grades 6-12), students will learn about how stars are born and how they die, why stars have different colors, and why the constellations change over time.
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The Nature of Light Light emitted by star, nebula, or galaxy can be used to uniquely identify it just as fingerprints and our DNA uniquely identify the astronomer who gathered the data on those objects. In The Nature of Light, we'll discuss how astronomers obtain a spectrum from an astronomical object and what kinds of information astronomers learn from a spectrum. The W. M. Keck Observatory is well equipped to acquire spectra, and we will explore some of the spectroscopic results that have come from out telescopes. A follow up visit may be planned, and during that visit, students can build their own spectroscopes and determine the fingerprints of light emitted by gas discharge tubes that we would bring to the lab. Appropriate for grades 6-12.
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Cosmology: Our Place in Space Where did the Universe come from? What is it like today? And what will be its fate? In this visit, students in grades 9-12 will learn about how mankind's concept of the Universe had changed over time and will learn how scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein helped to shape our modern view of the cosmos.
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Cratering Blast Collisions between objects in our Solar System have been going on since the planets began to form, and continue to occur today. Our own Moon's face is pockmarked with evidence of over a billion years of bombardment from comets and meteoroids. In this activity, geared to grades 9-12, we'll perform experiements in the classroom to simulate the impact of a small body into a surface and learn what the resulting craters can tell us about the properties of the object that made the crater after the dust settles!
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