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Madison Metropolitan School District

Cosmic Perspectives: Teacher's Guide

Outline of concepts to be presented

Expanded description:

This program has been adapted from the Home Sweet Home 2 program aimed at upper elementary level students. Aimed at middle school and above, this version of the program simply takes advantage of the students' expanded ability to view their position from other perspectives. This program helps to visualize and teach some of the concepts that are covered in the science standards, but difficult to teach in the classroom, and can only be observed outside over longer periods of time. Note, however, that this is not a substitute for having the students make observations outside.

This is a live program in which the audience interacts with the planetarium instructor in order to explore the universe around us. Students will make observations of the position of the sun (and moon if up on that day) in the sky at different times of the day. The sun's path for that day is compared to the sun's path at other seasons. This is accompanied by a sunset sequence; fast-forwarding from day to night.

We then explore the concept of day and night. By blasting off the Earth's surface, we explore what our home looks like from various altitudes, and we compare the flat perspective from the surface of the Earth to the way it appears from out in space.

The students are then lead through a brief exploration of the current night sky; finding planets, constellations, and more. The typical procedure is for the planetarium instructor to give verbal hints or directions on how to find a particular feature, and as the students search, they are assisted with a pointer "in the sky". The idea is to let them practice finding these features and discover them on their own. Hint: teachers, please resist the temptation of pointing to the features while the students are searching. Depending on time, we typically find any visible planets and 3-5 constellations.

As part of the exploration of the current sky, we simulate traveling out of the city to see a dark sky. There, we point out the fuzzy stripe of the Milky Way, and point out that the Earth, the solar system, and all of the stars we see in the sky are part of the Milky Way galaxy.

If the moon is in the sky at a reasonable time for viewing in the daytime or nighttime sky, we'll talk about what the moon looks like, and how that might change over the next couple of days. But we don't have time to go very deeply into what causes the change in phases. However, we will likely point out the commonalities between day and night on the Earth compared to the moon.

We summarize our place in the universe by going back to the perspective of observing the Earth from space. We then zoom out farther and farther away from the Earth -- seeing the moon as our closest neighbor, the structure of the solar system, our solar neighborhood, our place in the Milky Way galaxy, and a glimpse of millions of other far away galaxies. Then we head back to home.

And lastly, we fast-forward through the rest of the night, through sunrise, and back to daytime again.

General Concepts

  • Day/night: Earth rotating (spinning); objects' changing positions in the sky.
  • Seasonal changes in the Sun's path.
  • We can see planets with the unaided eye: Earth below our feet, and the planets look like stars in the sky (students learn how to find them).
  • Observing the moon: sometimes we see the moon at night, sometimes in the day, and sometimes we can't see the moon at all; the moon doesn't always look like the same shape.
  • The Earth is 1 of 8 planets in the solar system.
  • The Earth and the whole solar system, and billions of other stars are in a galaxy called the Milky Way.
  • Our Milky Way galaxy is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe.

Connecting to the Classroom

Students will be able to process and recall more of the discoveries they make in the planetarium if they are introduced to some of the concepts before they come to the planetarium. Activities and discussions which raise awareness of the sky would be helpful. For example, ask the students to go out at night, look around in the sky, jot down some notes about what they see, and bring them back to school the next day to discuss. Questions to consider include:

  • How many stars could you see? (just an estimate)
  • Was the moon visible in the sky? If so, what did it look like, and where was it located?
  • Could you recognize any star patterns? If so, which ones?
  • Did you see anything that you have questions about?

Before and/or after the program, consider taking the students outside to see if they can detect some of the changes that occur in the daytime sky such as the apparent motion of the sun and moon across the sky. If possible, have them go out multiple times on the same day to look for changes. Also helpful: going out on consecutive days to observe changes in the moon's position from one day to the next. See the Daytime Moon Calendar for assistance. Another observation to make is the height of the Sun in the middle of the day.

After the planetarium visit, it would be helpful to discuss and review the observations the students made in the planetarium. Have your students apply their new knowledge to activities which build on those observations made in the planetarium and/or verify them in with observations in the real sky.

Activities you might consider doing in the classroom:

  • Daytime observations of the sun and moon as a class. Draw pictures or record observations as a class. Compare at different times of the day.
  • Ask the students to go out with a parent and make observations at night.
  • How High Up Is Space? This is an excellent activity developed by Andrew Fraknoi (Astronomical Society of the Pacific) to create a scale model depicting various heights, such as Mount Everest, airplane flights, the beginning of space, and the Hubble Space Telescope. This activity could be done either before or after your visit to the planetarium. (Answer Key
  • See also the activities on our Instructional Resources page.

Vocabulary: some of the words the students will likely encounter

Ursa Major diagram
  • rotate (or spin)
  • revolve (or orbit)
  • explore
  • observe (observation)
  • space (beyond the Earth's atmosphere)
  • constellation (patch of sky with boundaries, recognized by the star pattern: see Big Dipper and Big Bear star patterns in the Ursa Major constellation, right)
  • International Space Station (ISS)
  • planet names
  • solar system
  • galaxy (Milky Way is ours)
  • constellation names of the current sky
  • phases of the moon (new moon, crescent, first quarter, full moon, last quarter, gibbous)
  • compass directions (north, south, east, west)