From Middle School Portal

Super Space - Introduction

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A. The Hubble Space Telescope is a manned satellite, with astronauts living and conducting research on it as it orbits the Earth.
B. The telescope is unmanned and controlled from the Earth. Astronomers request observation time on the telescope and conduct their research on Earth.
A. The Hubble Space Telescope can only magnify visible space objects.
B. The Hubble telescope can magnify objects so that astronomers can see them more clearly. But the telescope also can detect objects that are invisible to the human eye, such as infrared and ultraviolet light.
—Adapted from Amazing Space - Myths: Space Technology. Retrieved June 2, 2007.

The "A" statements are representative of the misconceptions middle school students may hold regarding space exploration. One explanation could be that manned spacecraft exploration has received more media attention because it captures human interest to a greater degree than do unmanned satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Cassini or Galileo. But it is these unmanned satellites, more so than manned spacecraft flights, that provide an unfathomable quantity of data and images regarding our universe.

In "More Trouble for Hubble," a March 2003 article in Discover Magazine, the anticipated doomsday of the Hubble telescope is described, as are the circumstances that led to its subsequent new lease on life. It's back by popular demand! The magazine's blog, DiscoBlog, received a posting in November 2006 announcing NASA would have a space shuttle mission in May 2008 designed to repair Hubble, and save it from falling into the atmosphere and dying. There is a sizable fraction of Americans who believe this kind of space exploration should go on, even at incredible expense and personal risk to astronauts.

Is a study of space part of your curriculum? Can you justify a space study unit? A study of space integrates aspects from almost all the content standards of the National Science Education Standards, allowing you a great deal of latitude and choice in your approach.

How does knowing how far away a star is or the size of a galaxy benefit life on earth? It is not uncommon for students to question the value of space exploration. This publication will assist you in helping your students acquire an accurate concept of and an appreciation for space exploration. After providing background information for teachers, we address the questions: Why study space? and Who studies space and how? Other sections highlight two fascinating aspects of space: evolution of the universe and the nature of galaxies.

Background Information for Teachers

Resources provided here will help you determine the sequence of your instruction and brush up on your astronomy-related content knowledge, such as the electromagnetic spectrum, theories of the universe, and nuclear fusion.

The NSDL Strand Map Service provides concept maps that illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Space exploration using telescopes is captured under The Physical Setting heading within the Galaxies and Universe map. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Galaxies and the Universe map appears below. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Other contexts for space exploration include The Copernican Revolution under the Historical Perspectives heading, Technology and Science and Decisions About Using Technology both under the Nature of Technology heading.

Galaxies and the Universe

View individual map Printable view of map

Electromagnetic Spectrum Part of NASA’s Imagine the Universe educational site, this page gives clear explanations and links keywords to a dictionary of terms for further information. Students will enjoy the colorful illustrations accompanying the text, which vertically follow the spectrum from radio to gamma rays, while teachers will appreciate the link to related lesson plans.

Plasma Universe A final page in a tutorial about the plasma phase of matter underlines how abundant plasmas are in the universe. It points out that understanding plasma is central to understanding what happens in the universe. Through space technologies, researchers have been able to study plasmas in areas like those shown in the images that illustrate this page. One of the images shows plasma loops on the Sun.

Observe the Change in a Star's Spectrum as Its Motion Changes This simulation shows high school students how scientists detect the movement of a star by examining its spectral absorption lines. The introduction explains the positive relationship between wavelength and the distance light travels. In a visualization, students can set a star’s speed away from or toward the Earth and observe the movement of the spectral lines. They can compare the lines with a reference spectrum from a stationary star.

Stephen Hawking’s Universe In this resource, Stephen Hawking discusses his ideas regarding the universe. Also presented are historic perspectives on theories of the universe dating back to Ptolemy. Hawking says, “Did the universe have a beginning, a moment of creation? Or had the universe existed forever? The debate between these two views raged for centuries without reaching any conclusions. Personally, I’m sure that the universe began with a hot Big Bang. But will it go on forever? If not, how will it end?...".

Activity: Fusion Reactions We are not suggesting you try this activity designed for high school classes with your students necessarily; however, it can be a content review for you and give you insight regarding some ways to present to your students the theory of how the various kinds of matter came to be. For example, middle school students understand that some kinds of matter are "heavier" relative to others, i.e., denser. The activity shows that stars start by burning hydrogen and end up creating many heavier elements inside their cores, elements that will be released into space when the star dies in a supernova explosion.

The Science Educator’s Guide to Selecting High-Quality Instructional Materials This guide presents a method for judging the quality of K-12 teaching materials, both in print and online. It is based on AAAS Project 2061’s curriculum-materials analysis procedure which was developed over several years with funding from the National Science Foundation and in consultation with K–12 teachers, materials developers, scientists, teacher educators, and cognitive researchers nationwide. The guide is designed to help science educators determine how well an instructional material supports students in learning important science ideas such as those described in national benchmarks and standards. With its step-by-step procedure for taking a critical look at instructional materials, the guide can help science educators take a more informed approach to a number of essential tasks. The online version of the guide includes examples from textbooks that have received high and low ratings when previously evaluated using the Project 2061 procedure, interactive tutorials, files that can be used as templates for recording evaluation judgments, and links to useful online resources.

Why Study Space?

The resources in this section will facilitate student understanding of the motivations, objectives and benefits of scientific approaches to studying space.

Why Microbes Matter A magazine article discusses research devoted to the search for microbial life on Mars. Links to related astrobiology stories, the Astrobiology Portal, NASA, and the Ames Research Center can also be accessed through this page.

Space Exploration: NASA Explores. Humanity Benefits This page describes several products and procedures developed to meet the needs of space explorers that were then applied to situations here on earth. Among them are medical diagnostics and treatments, consumer and household goods, and transportation technologies. (This is a page from the Boeing Integrated Defense Systems web site.)

Who Studies Space and How?

The resources provided in this section will help students discover the nature of the fields of astronomy and space exploration, as well as gain familiarity with some astronomers.

Space Day Resources at this web site are designed to help schools observe Space Day and promote interest in space sciences. On the students’ page, Games for kids offers matching games that use images of planets and nebulae, thus providing good visual reinforcement. Teachers can click on Teachers/Event Planner for five lesson plans and other resources, including print interviews with former astronauts.

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems: International Space Station This page introduces the International Space Station Project. Students can click on subheadings on the left side of the page to see images and find out more about things such as the assembly sequence and the science conducted on board, including bioastronautics, earth science, fundamental biology, physical sciences, and space product development.

How Stuff Works: How Space Shuttles Work The workings of a space shuttle—launch, orbit, life aboard a shuttle, and return to earth—are detailed here. Students can learn about the extensive preparations and examine the technology behind the shuttle program, as well as the mission it was designed to carry out. Information is also provided on the history of the space shuttle. Diagrams, full-color photos, highlighted terms, and supplementary definitions assist students in understanding scientific terminology. A printable version of this information is available on the site.

The Meaning of Color in Hubble Images This resource describes how Hubble produces visible images. Taking color pictures with the Hubble Space Telescope is much more complex than taking color pictures with a traditional camera. For one thing, Hubble doesn't use color film—in fact, it doesn't use film at all. Rather, its cameras record light from the universe with special electronic detectors. These detectors produce images of the cosmos not in color but in shades of black and white.

CICLOPS The CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory Operations) site contains a flight log, updates, and images from the Cassini mission to the outer planets. NASA is releasing new pictures almost every day on the web site.

Looking at the Sky Through a Glass Ceiling: Women in Astronomy This article looks at the involvement of women in astronomy by focusing on three pioneers from the 1900s and three modern-day astronomers. The three pioneering women are Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Each woman's most notable contribution to astronomy is described. The three featured contemporary astronomers participate in the Hubble Space Telescope project. They each supplied paragraph-long answers to the question: What is it like to be a woman in astronomy today? For five of the six featured astronomers, a link connects to a fuller description of their work.

Famous Astronomers and Astrophysicists D. Mark Manley, a professor at Kent State University (Ohio), provides short introductions for nearly 100 famous astronomers and astrophysicists from the Classical Period to the present. By searching either chronologically or alphabetically, users can find out about a given astronomer’s major successes as well as birth year and place. A link to more in-depth information is provided for each scientist listed. Most of the links also present a picture of the scientist.

Evolution of the Universe

This topic almost always inspires awe among students as they contemplate their place in the universe. By tapping into Stephen Hawking's ideas from the Background Information for Teachers section and choosing carefully from the resources in this section, teachers can encourage students to further develop their concepts of the vastness of the universe.

Size and Scale A lesson plan from gives teachers a well-conceived and thorough activity on the physics of size and scale. Objectives of the lesson include understanding the relative sizes of bodies in our solar system and why making a scale model of the entire solar system is a problem because the distances in space are so great. The site contains all the information needed to complete the lesson, as well as a printable version and related links.

Galaxies Galore, Games and More In this learning module, students use their observational skills to recognize patterns and learn how galaxies are classified as spiral, elliptical, and irregular. They will also become acquainted with the structure of their home galaxy, the Milky Way. All lessons are interactive. Students will be able to view actual photographs as they construct an interactive Milky Way, do a galaxy hunt, and play galaxy matching games. In the trading cards game, they will match pictures to facts to create a mosaic picture of the galaxy M51.

Amazing Space Teaching Tools This collection of teaching tools includes pictures and facts, fast facts, graphic organizers, Q&A sessions, and online explorations on an array of general subjects, such as gravity, galaxies, and the solar system.

Rader's Comos4kids! The science education web site offers a wealth of information about the universe, the galaxies, the solar and other systems, stars, and space exploration, all written for young people.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on The Solar System.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to browse science-related careers, including astronaut and aerospace engineer.

Latest Science News from the New York Times

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National Science Education Standards

A study of space integrates aspects from almost all the content standards of the National Science Education Standards.

Science as Inquiry: Content Standard A

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

Understandings about Scientific Inquiry

  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects and phenomena; and some involve making models.
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations. Different scientific domains employ different methods, core theories, and standards to advance scientific knowledge and understanding.
  • Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.
  • Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories. The scientific community accepts and uses such explanations until displaced by better scientific ones. When such displacement occurs, science advances.
  • Science advances through legitimate skepticism. Asking questions and querying other scientists' explanations is part of scientific inquiry. Scientists evaluate the explanations proposed by other scientists by examining evidence, comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.
  • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations.

Physical Science: Content Standard B

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of:

Transfer of Energy

  • Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical. Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • Light interacts with matter by transmission (including refraction), absorption, or scattering (including reflection). To see an object, light from that object—emitted by or scattered from it—must enter the eye.
  • In most chemical and nuclear reactions, energy is transferred into or out of a system. Heat, light, mechanical motion, or electricity might all be involved in such transfers. (See Unifying Concepts and Processes)
  • The sun is a major source of energy for changes on the earth's surface. The sun loses energy by emitting light. A tiny fraction of that light reaches the earth, transferring energy from the sun to the earth. The sun's energy arrives as light with a range of wavelengths, consisting of visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet radiation.

Science and Technology: Content Standard E

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

Understandings about Science and Technology

  • Scientific inquiry and technological design have similarities and differences. Scientists propose explanations for questions about the natural world, and engineers propose solutions relating to human problems, needs, and aspirations. Technological solutions are temporary; technologies exist within nature and so they cannot contravene physical or biological principles; technological solutions have side effects; and technologies cost, carry risks, and provide benefits. (See Content Standards A, F, & G)
  • Many different people in different cultures have made and continue to make contributions to science and technology.
  • Science and technology are reciprocal. Science helps drive technology, as it addresses questions that demand more sophisticated instruments and provides principles for better instrumentation and technique. Technology is essential to science, because it provides instruments and techniques that enable observations of objects and phenomena that are otherwise unobservable due to factors such as quantity, distance, location, size, and speed. Technology also provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.
  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. Reducing risk often results in new technology.
  • Technological designs have constraints. Some constraints are unavoidable, for example, properties of materials, or effects of weather and friction; other constraints limit choices in the design, for example, environmental protection, human safety, and aesthetics.
  • Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

History and Nature of Science: Content Standard G

As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of:

Science as a Human Endeavor

  • Individuals and teams have contributed and will continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Doing science or engineering can be as simple as an individual conducting field studies or as complex as hundreds of people working on a major scientific question or technological problem. Pursuing science as a career or as a hobby can be both fascinating and intellectually rewarding.
  • Scientists are influenced by societal, cultural, and personal beliefs and ways of viewing the world. Science is not separate from society but rather science is a part of society.

Nature of Scientific Knowledge

  • Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.
  • Because all scientific ideas depend on experimental and observational confirmation, all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available. The core ideas of science such as the conservation of energy or the laws of motion have been subjected to a wide variety of confirmations and are therefore unlikely to change in the areas in which they have been tested. In areas where data or understanding are incomplete, such as the details of human evolution or questions surrounding global warming, new data may well lead to changes in current ideas or resolve current conflicts. In situations where information is still fragmentary, it is normal for scientific ideas to be incomplete, but this is also where the opportunity for making advances may be greatest.

Historical Perspectives

  • In history, diverse cultures have contributed scientific knowledge and technologic inventions. Modern science began to evolve rapidly in Europe several hundred years ago. During the past two centuries, it has contributed significantly to the industrialization of Western and non-Western cultures. However, other, non-European cultures have developed scientific ideas and solved human problems through technology.
  • Usually, changes in science occur as small modifications in extant knowledge. The daily work of science and engineering results in incremental advances in our understanding of the world and our ability to meet human needs and aspirations. Much can be learned about the internal workings of science and the nature of science from study of individual scientists, their daily work, and their efforts to advance scientific knowledge in their area of study.

See the example entitled "An Analysis of a Scientific Inquiry"

  • Occasionally, there are advances in science and technology that have important and long-lasting effects on science and society. Examples of such advances include the following
Copernican revolution
Newtonian mechanics
Galactic universe
  • The historical perspective of scientific explanations demonstrates how scientific knowledge changes by evolving over time, almost always building on earlier knowledge.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Mary LeFever is a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project, a doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University, and presently teaches introductory biology at a Columbus, Ohio local high school. She has taught middle school and high school science and is an adjunct instructor of biology and natural sciences at Columbus State Community College.

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Copyright August 2007 - The Ohio State University. Last updated August 22, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.