Pluto Photos Give Teachers New Avenues for Space Lessons

By Jacob Bell — July 30, 2015 2 min read
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With recent pictures from NASA’s New Horizons space probe thrusting Pluto to center stage, some educators may be wondering how to better incorporate the icy, 1,473-miles-in-diameter sphere into their classroom teaching.

Two teachers--one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Washington state--have come up with sets of activities that use Pluto to introduce concepts of technology, science, and even real-world human indecisiveness to their students.

The first is Mike Mangiaracina, a 1st-5th grade teacher at Brent Elementary School in the nation’s capital. Though the Next Generation Science Standards (adopted by the DC State Board of Education in 2013) don’t include the solar system or planets other than Earth at the elementary school level, he has been sure to keep those topics alive.

Mangiaracina is planning to use the new photos in lessons that demonstrate the changing nature of technology, including a slideshow detailing the progression of Pluto images from the 1930s to today. He’s also using the photos to exemplify the changing ways in which scientists gather information and learn about the universe or “things they didn’t know they needed to learn,” such as Pluto’s planetary classification.

“The fact that it’s been reclassified, I think is a great way to get kids into understanding that scientists make decisions, then have to change their minds,” Mangiaracina said.

Additionally, Pluto and the New Horizons mission will serve as tie-ins to solar system and technology lessons that Mangiaracina already teaches, including reading space-themed Magic School Bus stories and learning about light, waves and the large distances that information must travel in space by translating a pixilated image across the classroom using flashlights and binary signaling.

Images of Pluto across several decades

Nearly 3,000 miles away in Bow, Wash., Donna Cole has cooked up a few Pluto-based lesson plans for the 7th and 8th grade students she teaches at Edison Elementary, a K-8 school.

While Cole also plans on having her students compare old and new photos of Pluto, her lessons are centered on scientific inquiry.

“I’m going to have them think like scientists and form some questions,” Cole said.

Those questions include why ice flows on Pluto despite its distance from the sun, why it has a thin atmosphere, and what parallels there might be between Pluto’s tail of atmospheric ions and the ions studied during the class’s unit on the sun. To incorporate personal technology, Cole is also considering having students look up New Horizons images either on their phones or school computers, and use their favorite photos as the inspiration for their questions.

“Once they come up with a set of questions,” Cole said, “then we’ll have a little Pluto conference where they share their ideas [and] new things that we’ve learned about Pluto in the past couple months versus what we knew about Pluto before.”

Like Mangiaracina, Cole also intends to use Pluto as a catalyst for discussion on other solar system-related topics like man-made space debris, and how students can develop strategies for dealing with that problem in the future.

For teachers looking for space curriculum inspiration, Cole recommends programs like the Huntsville, Ala.-based Space Academy for Educators, which provides 45 hours of education credit and gives teachers access to a website that has lesson plans and tips on bringing space instruction into the school.

Images: NASA

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.