Activities for the Classroom

Activities for the Classroom

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Cartoon diagram of pinhole camera.
Make a Pinhole Camera
In this rather intense hands-on activity, students make their own pinhole cameras from a pattern given in the activity article. They cut the pieces from a cardboard cereal box. All materials are easily available, except perhaps for the film canisters, which should obtainable with a small effort. Students will learn the principles of photography and enjoy a level of creativity not found with digital photography.
Disciplines:
Physics (optics), engineering design, astronomy
Activity:
Hands-on project, working individually or in small groups of two or three.
Cartoon O-three molecules, one red with devil horns and the other yellow with a halo.
Evil-doer or Do-gooder: Getting the Goods on Ozone
Explains the different roles ozone plays in Earth's atmosphere depending on its altitude. At some altitudes, it works to benefit living things, and at other altitudes it is harmful. Introduces the concept of spectroscopy and how a NASA instrument can measure ozone at different altitudes. Students are invited to build a spectroscope themselves, from poster board, construction paper, and using a CD or DVD as the diffraction grating.
Disciplines:
Earth science, physics (optics), chemistry, engineering design.
Activity:
Discussion and hands-on project. Can be done in small groups or indiviually.
Cartoon of a mean-looking, unfriendly alien planet
Designing for the Barely Imaginable
How do space scientists and engineers know what kinds of science instruments (cameras, spectrometers, etc.) to put on spacecraft that are destined for other planets, moons, asteroids, or comets? How do they decide what they will want to measure once they get to, say, Saturn's moon Titan or Jupiter's moon Europa? This article explains these planetary science instruments as extensions of our five senses, with each type of instrument analogous to eyes, ears, noses, etc. The activity invites students to imagine and describe an alien world, then design a pretend mission to explore that world, and give the results!
Disciplines:
Engineering design, physics, Earth science, language arts
Activity:
Discussion, design, and cooperation in small groups
Drawing of SAILMAST truss structure
The Abracadabra of Engineering: Strong Structures from Flimsy Materials
Introduces the concept of solar sailing. Presents the problem of how to design a solar sail the size of a football field that can still be launched and deployed in space. Students build a strong, simple truss model using nothing but plain paper and string. This design is the basis of a real mast design to support solar sails. Students then test the strength of their model. The article explains how this lightweight structure of flimsy materials can be so strong.
Disciplines:
Engineering design, physics
Activity:
Model building in small groups
What if a machine designed a mousetrap?
Designing Nature's Way
Describes the process of artificial evolution in which a supercomputer or many microcomputers networked together "evolve" and test millions of generations of designs to finally come up with the best one possible to meet a given set of requirements. In this case, artificial evolution was used to create a perfect, tiny antenna for some tiny satellites. A Includes a clever game students can play to "evolve" the best computer "emoticon" face to express a given emotion. Illustrates the concepts of both natural and artificial evolution.
Disciplines:
Biology, engineering design, logic
Activity:
Group exercise and discussion.
Pluto and Charon sizes compared to USA
Pluto or Bust!
Describes the New Horizons mission to Pluto-Charon and the extreme challenges presented to the scientists and engineers designing the mission. Read about the very strange Pluto-Charon system, and use the questions at the end for class discussion or as a writing assignment.
Disciplines:
Logic, engineering design, astronomy
Activity:
Individual or group exercise and discussion.
Thruster bar drawing from article
Teaching Machines to Think Fuzzy
Explains in a clear and entertaining way the difference--or at least one of them--between how humans think and how machines think. Humans understand complex problems with seemingly unquantifiable parameters, then manipulate the input parameters to come up with a probable solution. If that doesn't work, they take the less-than-perfect result as a new input and tweak the answer some more until satisfied with the result. This article and activity show how you could teach a computer--or a robot--to solve problems that way.
Disciplines:
Math, logic, physics (force, motion)
Activity:
Individual or group exercise and discussion.
Dampen That Drift!
In very simple terms, this activity introduces vectors, and their addition and subtraction, without need for geometry, algebra, or trigonometry. To shed light on some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, space scientists and engineers are working to perfect a technology called space interferometry. Several spacecraft carrying telescopes or other types of instruments are flown in formation. They work together as if part of one giant, rigid instrument. This activity article explains a system for eliminating almost all the tiny disturbances in this virtual structure caused by random forces in space.
Disciplines:
Math (introduces vectors), physics (force, motion)
Activity:
Group activity (game) and discussion.
Analemma curve over the Temple of Apollo
Reinventing Time
Summarizes the history of timekeeping technology and secondary inventions people used to reconcile our mechanical timekeeping with our master timekeeper, the Sun. Explains the analemma curve and how to use it to calculate the exact time of high noon in any location.
Disciplines:
Earth's coordinate system, astronomy, technology and society, math
Activity:
Group activity and discussion.
Weather Wizard
Team Up on the Weather
Explains how weather satellites, teamed with scientists, pilots, computers programmers, and super computers work together to save lives and property by predicting where large storms will hit and giving people time to get out of the way. Includes a fun weather trivia game with lots of background information.
Disciplines:
Earth science
Activity:
Group activity and discussion.
Singin' the Black and Blues
Gives simple, yet authoritative answers to the questions "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why is the sky black at night?"
Disciplines:
Physics (light), astronomy, language arts, music.
Activity:
Reading and discussion, singing (if desired), writing poem or essay.
Listening for Rings from Space
This activity introduces gravitational waves and the NASA technology being developed to detect them in space. The activity involves building a metaphorical interferometer that demonstrates how the mission (and all interferometry) works.
Disciplines:
Physics (light, lasers, interferometry), math (proportion)
Activity:
Small group hands-on activity and class discussion.
Earth from space
Rising Above the Problem
Explains how remote imaging of Earth by satellite instrumentation can be used for everything from managing forest fires to deciding where to build a shopping center. Students think about how very high-resolution images of Earth from space might be used, and about the political and economic aspects of studies using this type of data.
Disciplines:
Earth science and technology, technology and society
Activity:
Group activity, discussion.
Cloud cartoon
Sizing Up the Clouds
The teacher sets up three simulated "clouds" representing three different cloud types. Students use different methods to estimate "precipitation" contents of each cloud type. Each method is roughly analogous to methods actually used in weather forecasting. Finally, the "precipitation" from each cloud will be released, and the students will compare their estimates to what is actually experienced on the "ground."
Disciplines:
Earth science (weather) and technology, math (estimating, percentages, ratios, and averages)
Activity:
Classroom demo, observation and recording, discussion.
Gas Cards for Mystery Gas Game.
Solve the Mystery of the Gases!
Explains how laser light is different from ordinary light and how lasers have found uses in everything from CD players to delicate surgeries. Introduces emission and absorption spectroscopy. Students are invited to play some gas identification games that help them understand how spectrometers work, using both ordinary light and lasers. Discussion questions help the teacher engage the students and evaluate the effectiveness of the activity.
Disciplines:
Physics, chemistry, technology applications.
Activity:
Reading, discussion, and group game.
GALEX rendering
Telescope as Time Machine
Students read about how the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft is looking into the ancient history of the universe. Students learn about different types of galaxies, and what scientists hope to learn from GALEX's survey of nearly the entire universe. The activity reinforces the reading with a crossword puzzle and a word find puzzle using the new vocabulary from the article.
Disciplines:
Physics, astronomy, language arts.
Activity:
Individual or group reading and individual worksheet activity.
ST5 Nanosat Frisbee Dog
Launch a Frisbee into Orbit!
How is launching a spacecraft like throwing a Frisbee? Describes the analysis process that went into the design of a clever mechanism for releasing multiple "nanosatellites" into orbit from a rocket, while imparting the necessary spin to make them work properly. Introduces angular velocity, angular acceleration, rotational inertia, and torque, and shows how concepts are used to design mechanism to impart proper rate of spin. Gives patterns and instructions for building a cardboard toy "Nanosat Launcher" that works very much like the real thing.
Disciplines:
Physics, math, and engineering design.
Activity:
Hands-on small and large group activity.
Pixel This game icon
Pixel This!
Demonstrates digital imaging technology with mock-up pixel arrays that the students make themselves. They can then play exciting and competitive games with these arrays, in which one team's array represents the camera on-board a spacecraft exploring some intriguing planet or moon and the other team's array represents the digital display here on Earth where the mystery image is being received.
Disciplines:
Engineering design, analytical thinking, teamwork.
Activity:
Hands-on small and large group activity.
Parallel parking system diagram
System Engineering a Robot
Introduces the thinking and analysis process used by engineers to design a software and hardware system that will perform a particular set of functions or solve a problem. As an example, the article describes the process as applied to hypothetical "autonomous parallel parking" system for a car. Then, students are divided into small teams and invited to think of a problem and begin the design process to build a system to solve it.
Disciplines:
Engineering system design, analytical thinking, teamwork.
Activity:
Reading, discussion, small and large group activity.
Sky watchers looking for the Space Station.
Chasing Down a Satellite
Clearly explains and illustrates the concepts behind Kepler's Laws of planetary motion, Newton's laws of gravitation, and how satellites can stay "up" in Earth orbit without constant application of thrust. Even without the equations (beyond most middle school students, but not high school algebra or physics students), the article nonetheless supports a discussion about satellites, orbits, or the International Space Station (since part of the activity is learning how to spot it in the night sky).
Disciplines:
Math, physics, technology
Activity:
Reading, discussion, math exercise, sky watching.
Anemometer to measure wind speed.
Write the Book on Weather Metrics
Introduces weather terminology. Invites students to investigate how we measure the weather and other characteristics of the atmosphere and create their own "Book of Weather Metrics."
Disciplines:
Math, science, technology, art
Activity:
Individual creative classroom and homework assignment.
Leo investigates gyroscopic effect.
Navigating by Good Gyrations
Introduces the importance of gyroscopes in navigation where movement is in all three dimensions (sea, air, and space travel). Classroom demo of gyroscopic effect using a bicycle wheel, plus conceptual explanation of why gyros behave as they do (inertia, linear and angular momentum, centripetal force, precession).
Disciplines:
Physics, space technology.
Activity:
Classroom demonstration, with participation and discussion.
Earth's magnetosphere
Tidy Up Those Sloppy Force Fields!
Introduces Earth's magnetic field and how spacecraft that carry instruments to measure natural magnetic fields must be themselves "magnetically clean" so as not to distort the measurements. Demonstrates how electric current flowing in a circuit (such as in spacecraft electronics) induces a magnetic field and the effect of some different approaches to "cleaning up" this magnetic field.
Disciplines:
Physics (electricity, magnetism), Earth science.
Activity:
Classroom demonstration and discussion.
Wright flyer.
From Smoke Signals to Cell Phones: Tracing How Technologies Evolve
Discusses how technologies do not just pop up out of thin air, but usually evolve through small, continuous improvements and innovations that build on what has gone before.
Disciplines:
History, language arts, research and analytical skills.
Activity:
Individual research and reporting.
Prism breaks apart white light
Taking Apart the Light
Introduces the electromagnetic spectrum and how scientists use spectroscopy to know what kinds of atoms and molecules are in a star or gas through which starlight passes.
Disciplines:
Physics, chemistry, math, analytical reasoning.
Activity:
Individual worksheet activity.
Weather Wizard
Become a Weather Wizard
Introduces common weather concepts and terminology. Shows common weather map symbols and invites students to show real weather scenarios by drawing symbols on a map.
Discipline(s):
Earth science
Activity:
Group or individual desk activity, discussion
Gravitational wave surfer
Catch a Gravitational Wave, Dude!
Using surfer lingo, article introduces the concept of gravitational waves, their likely sources, and what we can learn from them. Students play a science bowl type game to test their knowledge.
Discipline(s):
Physics, space science
Activity:
Group activity, discussion
Rocket to Mars
Packing for a L-o-o-o-ng Trip to Mars
Decide what you will need to take on a 2-1/2 year journey to Mars. Then plan how to fit everything into a 1-cubic-meter box, using only a measuring tape, pencil and paper, and math.
Disciplines:
Math, space science
Activity:
Group (cooperation, compromise), technical drawing, discussion
Infrared cat.
Taking a Cold, Clear Look at the Universe
Describes NASA's newest space telescope and introduces the electromagnetic spectrum, especially the infrared universe.
Disciplines:
Physics, space science
Activity:
Reading and discussion only. (Originally included invitation to enter NASA telescope naming contest, deadline now past.)
Eye monster Keeping Nine Eyes on the Weather
Build and demonstrate a simple working model of an Earth-orbiting instrument that scientists are using to study the atmosphere and the pollutants that could be contributing to global warming.
Disciplines:
Earth science, visual arts, geometry
Activity:
Hands-on construction (or teacher can build one demo model for class), visual experiential project ("seeing is believing"), discussion.
Cloud watchers
Water Works on a Blue Planet
Learn about Earth's water cycle and water budget. Do a poster or mural that shows some of the ways water is transported from place to place on Earth.
Disciplines:
Earth science, visual arts
Activity:
Reading, discussion, and group (small or whole class) visual art project.
Cosmic poetry
Be a Cosmic Poet
Learn how advanced space technologies extend our knowledge of the Universe. Write a poem about the tools that make humans unique in the world--or the Universe!
Disciplines:
Space technology, language arts
Activity:
Individual creative project, with sharing.
Wave form modulation
Speaking in Phases
How do spacecraft put actual information into the radio signals they send back to Earth? Beat out rhythms on drums or desks and send messages using the same principles used in space exploration.
Disciplines:
Physics (EM wave modulation), math (binary codes), space technology, music!
Activity:
Entire class, indoor, game-type demonstration
Jason maps the oceans
Mapping the Watery Hills and Dales
Learn how the Global Positioning System satellites work. Find out how the Topex and Jason-1 satellites use GPS data in making very precise topological maps of the oceans.
Disciplines:
Earth science, geometry, space technology
Activity:
Entire class, indoor, game-type demonstration
Blinded by starlight
Blinded by the Light!
Learn the tricks astronomers use to find planets around other stars when the planets are lost in the star's glare.
Disciplines:
Physics, astronomy
Activity:
Entire class, indoor, game-type demonstration

Sensor web pod
The Pods are Coming!
Find out how a "web" of tiny sensors can measure conditions over a large area all at one time.
Disciplines:
Engineering, environment (especially carbon cycle), science experiment design.
Activity:
Entire class, indoor or outdoor, game-type demonstration
Barcode example
Put Your Own Spin on Technology
Understand how technologies developed for space can be used to create beneficial new products and materials for everyday life.
Disciplines:
Design, engineering, technology and society
Activity:
Individual or teams, indoor, hands-on
Spacecraft montage
Design and Build Your Own Spacecraft
Use found objects and materials to design and build a model spacecraft.
Disciplines:
Design, engineering, art
Activity:
Individual or teams, indoor, hands-on
Enose experiment
Enose is Enose is Enose
How scientists and engineers study biological systems to develop artificial systems, in this case artificial olfaction.
Disciplines:
Biology, chemistry, electronics, teamwork
Activity:
Entire class, indoor, hands-on
Constellation flying activity
Getting in Touch with Your Inner Spacecraft
How can we explore "space weather" using multiple spacecraft?
Disciplines:
Earth science, team work
Activity:
Small groups (3-4), outdoor, kinesthetic
Spacecraft in harsh environment
50 Ways to Torture a What?!
How do scientists and engineers know that their spacecraft and instruments will withstand the harsh environment of space?
Disciplines:
Chemistry, physics, scientific method, language arts
Activity:
Individual or small group, hands-on, indoor. Adaptable to grades 9-12.
Stereo vision experiment.
Be Glad You're Not a Cyclops!
What is stereoscopic vision and why do we need it?
Disciplines:
Biology, math
Activity:
Pairs (in turn within large group), hands-on experiment, indoor
Keck Interferometer
De-twinkling the Stars

How do astronomers remove the distortion in starlight caused by Earth's atmosphere?
Disciplines:
Physics, math, Earth science, astronomy
Activity:
Large group, kinesthetic, outdoor
Blue angels formation flying
Two Approaches to Formation Flying
Comparing approaches taken by the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and multiple autonomous formation-flying spacecraft.
Disciplines:
Math, Earth science
Activity:
Groups (4-6), kinesthetic, outdoor
Kids take apart fan.
Making the Parts Fit Together
How do engineers design a machine so that all its functions work together smoothly?
Disciplines:
Design, analytical reasoning, visual arts
Activity:
Small groups (3-5), hands-on, indoor. Adaptable to grades K-12.
Keck wave behavior demo
Watching the Waves
How can wave behavior help us find planets around distant stars?
Disciplines:
Physics, Earth science, astronomy
Activity:
Small groups (2-4), hands on, indoor
Gravity assist demo.
Getting a Feel for Gravity
How do space mission planners use gravity to help their spacecraft reach their destinations?
Disciplines:
Physics, Earth science
Activity:
Small and large groups, kinesthetic, outdoor
Spacecraft on a chip.
Design a Spacecraft on a Chip
How do engineers keep making spacecraft smaller and smaller, yet more and more capable?
Disciplines:
Design, creative thinking, visual arts
Activity:
Groups (4-7), design, draw, build model. Indoor. Adaptable to grades 9-12.
Ion drive of DS1 spacecraft
Ion Drive Your Way through Space
How can ions be used to accelerate spacecraft on long missions to explore the solar system?
Disciplines:
Physics, engineering design
Activity:
Groups (7-10), kinesthetic, indoor or outdoor
Beacon monitor on DS1
You've Got Algo-rhythm!
How do space scientists program a computer to be smart enough to make up its own mind?
Disciplines:
Math, language arts, visual arts
Activity:
Small groups (3-5), kinesthetic, hands-on, indoor
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