The Grade Nine Astronomy/Space Unit

The address of this page:

It is maintained by John Percy (; last revised December 2009. Although now Professor Emeritus, my involvement in teacher education continues, especially as 2009 is International Year of Astronomy; one of the cornerstone projects is the Galileo Teacher Training Program; and many of my IYA projects were to support the teaching of astronomy in the schools, in partnership with the Science Teachers Association of Ontario (STAO).

1. Introduction

These notes relate to the grade nine astronomy/space unit, as revised for 2009-2010, but include notes about the previous curriculum.

With STAO, I have developed a strategy/framework document to provide teachers with "pathways" or "lenses" by which they can navigate through this unit. The document is here .

The School Curriculum:

Science: An STSE Subject!

Why is astronomy useful, and should be part of the school curriculum?

The grade nine curriculum begins [D1.2] with a discussion of the costs and benefits of space exploration and activity, but this should be supplemented with a cost-benefit analysis of astronomy, a pure science, on the basis of the reasons why it is "useful". How does one put a $$$ value on the non-economic benefits of astronomy?

So why should governments (and taxpayers) support it [D1.2]?

Where is astronomy in the Ontario science curriculum?

See revised grade nine curriculum for the curriculum to be implemented in 2009.

The Importance of astronomy education research: Astronomy Education Review -- a free, on-line journal. Sadly, this resource ceased publication in 2013, and is available only as an archive.

One interesting recent article is by my former student Mirjan Krstovic and his students. This article explains what topics Ontario grade nine students are really interested in -- black holes, extraterrestrial life, space exploration, cosmology!

Pedagogy: there are many possible problems -- frames of reference issues, 3D issues, scales, and especially the many types of misconceptions which students (and some teachers) hold -- some of them conceptual, others related to pseudoscience. Good examples of misconceptions: it's colder in winter because the earth is further from the sun; astronauts feel weightless because there is no gravity in space. Good examples of pseudoscience: earth is being visited by aliens; the world will end in 2012.

2. Resources

One of the many advantages of astronomy is that it encourages students to ask questions, often very profound ones. I have compiled a list of frequently asked questions here, based on my visits to classrooms.

CASCA Education Site Especially good for Canadian content. Until about 2012, it was constantly being updated by an experienced teacher, but is now "dormant". But there was some very good information on it.

National Research Council astronomy education website.

Canadian Space Agency space education website.

SkyWays, by Mary Lou Whitehorne, published by Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Astronomical Society of the Pacific Excellent source of well-tested astronomy activities (and other resources) on-line.

The problems of the grade nine astronomy/space unit; "perspective document" by Siow-Wang Lee BEd and John Percy, helps you develop an overall strategy for the unit:

Commentary on Grade 9 Unit

The year 2009 is International Year of Astronomy celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's development and use of the astronomical telescope. Here's my article on how to incorporate IYA into your classroom. And here's a powerpoint presentation on the same topic.

3. What to Teach?

[D1.2] Astronomy is awesome; don't forget the awe factor; don't overdo day/night, seasons, moon phases, eclipses and tides at the expense of the gee-whiz stuff, even if you have to do the latter descriptively. For beautiful images, leaf through SkyNews magazine's photo-of-the-week archives:

Picture-of-the-Week Archives Awesome images taken by Canadian amateur astronomers with simple equipment [D3.5].

Or you can do a wonderful tour of the universe at t NASA's well-captioned Astronomical Picture of the Day .

[D3.6] The nature of astronomy: astronomy is an observational science, so observing and recording are central; this has implications for multicultural science: pre-technological societies carried out these activities, and used them for practical purposes:

Multicultural Astronomy: a resource for teachers

Observing the night sky; using a star chart; what's visible tonight? Use a planisphere or sky chart to "plan an observing session" and to model motions in the sky. Research question: do all stars rise in the east and set in the west?

Monthly Star Chart

And then there's the problem of light pollution , which turns out to be a good STSE activity; try some of the activities:

Teachers' resource on light pollution

You can be a citizen scientist and contribute data to real science projects:

Citizen Science at the Galaxy Zoo.

The telescope is the key technology in astronomy, and technology is an obvious curriculum emphasis. Do you need a telescope to do astronomy? No! There's lots you can do with the unaided eye, or with binoculars. If you do want to purchase a telescope, consult an expert source such as SkyNews or Sky and Telescope magazine. Or there are inexpensive telescopes, such as from Learning Technologies Incorporated, or the International Year of Astronomy's GalileoScope project.

Try: Sky News telescope buyers' guide

Do you need software? Useful! I recommend using Starry Night , but in conjunction with actual observations of the sky -- either to predict what you will see, or to identify what you saw.

Angles in the sky: a useful math link! The size of the Big Dipper is about 10 x 25 degrees; the angle of the North Star, above the northern horizon, is about equal to your latitude.

The Sun: Several space missions (notably SOHO) are/were designed to study the sun, and most of them have excellent education websites, such as the SOHO Education Site

Observing the sun -- safely! Various ways of doing it, systematically, and/or combining it with daily Internet images of the Sun:

The sun right now.

Here are directions for observing the sun safely.

You can count sunspots, and combine your data with archival/historical sunspot numbers, analyze them, and present/discuss your results.

For a set of activities for teaching the sun to grade nine students, prepared by OISE Intern Fabiano Micoli, see sun presentations and activities.

Scale models of the solar system: although these may have been done in grade six, it is not unreasonable to do them again in a more detailed and serious way. Make a model for a real location!

[D3.5] Modelling the Sun-Earth-Moon system with light bulbs and Styrofoam balls; probably done in grade six, but is the best way to teach these concepts (if you must).

[D3.3] Descriptive material on the planets, moons, comets, and asteroids: definitely worth doing; this is the current, exciting stuff.

Nothing beats a debate about the recent demotion of Pluto! Here's background information.

The environments on the Moon and planets (gravity, illumination, temperature, cratering, terrain ..... ): this is definitely worth doing, since it can emphasize the physical principles involved.

[D3.4] Understanding the Sun (and stars): useful for realizing that there are simple physical principles involved, especially the dominant role of gravity. Also how astronomers understand the Sun and stars through modelling and simulation.

MAJOR CONTENT: The life cycle of a star; can be done descriptively (though be aware that the physical principles involved are relatively simple) or creatively [though this topic has been dropped from the revised grade nine unit]; still, students are interested in starlife and stardeath, and it's relevant to understanding the sun:

A neat approach to stellar evolution

[D3.1] Speaking of evolution: in this day of challenges to the theory of evolution, and the vast age of the earth and the universe, how do astronomers know that the universe is old, and evolving with time?

An Ancient Universe document for teachers.

[D3.2] MAJOR CONTENT: Formation of planetary systems -- physical principles involved are gravity, and conservation of angular momentum. And there are lots of other planetary systems now known:

[D3.2] Exoplanets

The discovery of large numbers of planets around other stars enables astronomers to refine their theories about how planetary systems form.

Scale model of our galaxy, and its neighbours.

[D3.1, D3.3] The time-machine effect -- awesome! As we look outward in space, we look backward in time; we can see distant galaxies as they were in their infancy; the Hubble Deep Field .

Hubble Deep Field

This also relates to the important topic of light years as a unit of distance [D3.3]

[D3.1] MAJOR CONTENT: The origin and evolution of the universe. The expanding universe (modelled with a balloon). The effects of gravity, dark energy and dark matter .

4. Comments about the Applied Unit

The applied unit was put together with somewhat less thought than the academic unit, as many of the applied units were. In principle, students in the applied courses should be able to demonstrate excellence in other than "academic" or theoretical ways. In the case of astronomy, there is a possible strategy: build the curriculum around the practical activities that are done by amateur astronomers. These include: observing and recording the sky; imaging astronomical objects; using software to predict or explain their observations; making models and demonstrations; writing or speaking about astronomy. But the students' interests will be the same!