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Madison Metropolitan School District

Planetary Energy Revealed: Teacher's Guide

Expanded Description

The program starts by exploring the question: “What colors of light can we see?” After exploring this, we ask if there are other types of light we can’t see. This leads into the concept of the Electromagnetic Spectrum and the fact that each type of light has its own properties, for example, x-rays travel through your skin. Then we introduce the terms “transparent” and “opaque” with materials that demonstrate the concept.

We then project the live image from an infrared camera and pan around the room, showing what each of the students look like in infrared light, and observe the brightest and darkest infrared objects in the room. We ask the students to share their observations and conclusions about these infrared images. Then we revisit the material that was described as being transparent, and it turns out to be opaque to infrared light, and the opaque material is shown to be transparent to infrared light.

The students work through the path that energy travels to explain why their car gets so hot on a sunny day: visible light passes through glass, gets absorbed by the seats and dash in the car and they get hot, they radiate or “shine” infrared light which cannot travel through the glass. The infrared energy is then trapped in the car, and it gets hot. Depending on where the students are in their study of climate change, this can then be related to the Greenhouse Effect and climate change.

These different properties show us how important it is to explore the universe around us with detectors that can “see” beyond visible light. We compare a visible light image of the constellation Orion to an infrared image of that same region of the sky -- they are dramatically different. Infrared light from distant sources gets absorbed by water vapor in our atmosphere, so astronomers use a high altitude NASA aircraft called SOFIA, or space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope. A firsthand account will be shared regarding what it is like to fly on SOFIA. 

To explore the main source of Earth’s thermal energy, we observe the Sun’s path across the sky for the day of the visit, and compare this to the path for the first day of each season. We look for a connection between the height of the Sun’s path, and the temperatures we experience. They see that we have high temperatures in the summer when the Sun’s path is high, and low temperatures when the Sun’s path is low. After predicting how the Sun’s path for each season would be different at the equator, we travel to the equator to see that the Sun’s path is high for each season. We then travel out into space to look back at the Earth-Sun relationship, and overlay global temperature data (infrared images) on the Earth to see that the tropics are we see the warmest temperatures.

We then travel to Jupiter to investigate possible sources for Jupiter’s thermal energy. We examine Jupiter’s size, overall structure, distance from the Sun, and infrared images of Jupiter. We conclude that Jupiter’s main source of thermal energy, which drives its weather, is internal. We finish by flying back to Earth to review, summarize, and gather further questions to be investigated.

General Concepts

  • Light: electromagnetic spectrum, and how light interacts with matter.
  • Sun’s path across the sky and how it changes throughout the year; how those changes relate to seasonal variations in temperature; and how the height of the seasonal paths of the Sun differ with latitude.
  • Climate as it relates to latitude.
  • Thermal energy on a global scale, and primary sources of that energy.


  • Electromagnetic spectrum
  • Transparent
  • Opaque
  • Infrared
  • Observe
  • Conclude
  • Equator
  • Thermal energy

Connecting to the Classroom

This program is designed to support and extend the following units taught in 6th grade science in MMSD: Thermal Energy; Ocean, Atmosphere, Climate; and Earth’s Changing Climate. The timing of this visit may fit best in the Earth’s Changing Climate unit. The visit could also be timed to coincide with other units. When you fill out the Reservation Request Form, please indicate the connection and timing of your classroom work in the Goals field of the form.

Before your visit:
In the planning stage for your visit, please consider browsing through the Planetarium Checklist, especially “Step 4: Preparing For Your Visit” which provides some recommendations for how to help your students know what to expect. Unless you are using this visit as an introduction to thermal energy, all of the work you are doing in the classroom in these related units are helping the students to prepare for the planetarium experience, however, it may be helpful for you to review key elements in your studies that link to your goals for the visit.

After your visit:
We recommend that you conduct a follow-up discussion with your students on the day after your visit. The following prompts could be part of that discussion:

  • How did the infrared camera show variations in temperature?
  • Describe the piece of clear plastic that was used in the demonstration in terms of whether it was transparent or opaque to visible and transparent light: do the same for the dark “mit” made from a contractor grade garbage bag.
  • Since an infrared camera can show variations in temperature, see light radiating from objects in a human temperature range, and see through some things that are opaque to visible light, can you think of situations where an infrared camera would be useful? (examples: security cameras in the dark; search and rescue; firefighters use them to see hot spots and see through the smoke; astronomers use them to see through the dusty shroud around a newly forming star)
  • Why does your car get hot on a sunny day? 
  • How is your car getting hot on a sunny day relate to gases in Earth’s atmosphere that absorb or reflect infrared light?
  • Why is it important to study the universe around us in other types of light other than just visible light?
  • Describe the Sun’s path for each season as seen in Wisconsin, and how the paths are different at the equator.
  • Describe the connection between the temperatures and the height of the Sun’s path.
  • On the Earth infrared image, where do we find the warmest temperatures? (tropics) Why? (mainly caused by how high the Sun gets in the sky)
  • On the Jupiter infrared image, where do we find the warmest temperatures? (dark bands) Why? (complicated, but basically due to seeing deeper into Jupiter)
  • What’s the primary source of thermal energy in Earth’s atmosphere?
  • What’s the primary source of thermal energy in Jupiter’s atmosphere?