I love astronomy, there is something new all the time. But teaching it to elementary students can be a bit repetitive when trying to get the basics: the eight planets, moons, asteroid belts, dwarf planets, etc. The same activities, year after year can become boring or tiring for teachers. The past few years I’ve been approaching astronomy from a different point of view, that of an asteroid.
Asteroids move around the solar system and sometimes bump into one another, cracking and breaking. The students follow some of these broken asteroids/meteoroids around the solar system as they get caught in the gravitational pull of different planets. You can go in so many directions with this creatively, but this year they explored the different planets according to their surface types: inner planets with their predominantly rocky surfaces, but with different types of atmospheres, and the outer planets, mostly gas but others with frozen gaseous atmospheres.
This year the kids took different planets and tried to reproduce them, some with no atmosphere, just dry dust and rock; others with liquid water, small amounts of land and layers of atmosphere made of plastic wrap, and then other planets with thick cloud like atmospheres (shaving cream). They experimented with creating them and identifying what happened to the meteoroids when they became meteors flying through the different atmospheres and hit the planet’s surface. They enjoyed identifying the unique characteristics of each of the inner planets and the Jovian Planets – Gas Giants and Ice Giants.
The children had to use materials I already had in the classroom: containers, sand, flour, plastic wrap aluminum foil, shaving cream, tissue paper, corn starch, laundry starch, and glue. If I didn’t have something they wanted/needed, they had to come up with something different. They also used materials they found outside – rocks, dirt, and plants. They placed their planets on the floor, predicting what would happen when the meteors hit. They used small pebbles for meteors and dropped, tossed, and threw them on each planet. Then they observed what happened to the planets and meteors. Some created craters, others formed mountains, and on certain planets they disappeared.
Learning became a student-led adventure. Students had to think, plan, and execute as a team. They had to observe and write about what happened to their meteors. They asked great questions and even found innovative ways to extend the lesson on their own. And the best part, no one in the room was bored with the same old lesson on planets.