Ideas for Lessons in the Classroom, and Educational Resources

 Copyright 2009 | About this blog


This page was originally created to support this Blog ‘s Special Post for live Web 2.0 coverage of MESSENGER’s flyby of Mercury on Sept 29, 2009. In support of continued BotU coverage of MESSENGER’s mission, with orbital insertion on March 18, 2011, this page will be maintained and regularly updated with new resources. Please use it to engage students everywhere in this exciting mission to another world.



Quick Navigation for the BotU Special Post on the MESSENGER Flyby

Main Page (

Other Sub-pages:

1. Schedule for Flyby Events and Web 2.0 Live Coverage (

2. Mission Scientists, Voices of Mission Control & their Links (

3. How to Participate—It’s Easy (

4. Witness History: See Mercury Before Sunrise! Sept 29-Oct 1, 2009 (


This page: (


The purpose of this page is to help teachers place the live coverage of the MESSENGER flyby of Mercury within a larger science education context. The idea is to use this historic event as a powerful Teachable Moment in the News.


Here you will find ideas for class discussions and lessons, pointers to educational resources, and an understanding of the science objectives for the flyby.


The flyby is Tuesday, September 29, with live coverage by the Voices of Mission Control through Thursday, October 1 (see the Schedule). You can participate in just the live coverage, or you might consider adding activities and lessons both BEFORE and for a few weeks AFTER the live events. You can use the live events to inspire and excite, and leverage deeper more expansive science education experiences in the classroom.


I thought a good approach for this page would be to provide you resources for a “story” in 3 chapters: 1) The Prologue: Why do we explore? 2) Setting the Stage: The Nature of the Solar System, and 3) MESSENGER at Mercury: Mission Objectives and Flyby #3. NOTE: Section 3 can be used in support of MESSENGER’s continuing mission, and is not limited to flyby #3.


The resources provided on this page are taken from across the MESSENGER Education Team:

1. The Official MESSSENGER website at the Applied Physics Laboratory

2. The Official MESSENGER Education and Public Outreach website at Montana State University

3. Science Net Links (SNL) from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

4. This Blog’s Resource Pages (This Blog is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education—NCESSE)

5. This Blog’s Posts, many of which are outlined in the Teachers Lesson Planner

6. The lessons associated with the Grade K-12 Voyage Education Module on Solar System content. It was developed for NCESSE’s Voyage National Program, which is permanently installing Voyage model Solar Systems in communities worldwide. The Module is now also officially integrated into the MESSENGER Education Program. All lessons comprising this Module are fully described—and are downloadable at no costHERE at the website for NCESSE’s Journey through the Universe initiative—which provides sustainable programming for students, their teachers, and their families across entire communities.

7. The lessons associated with the Grade K-12 MESSENGER Education Module Staying Cool, which are described in detail HERE and are all downloadable at no cost HERE at the MESSENGER Education and Public Outreach website.


Note: all lessons were constructed from the National Science Education Standards and AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy.



1.  The Prologue: Why do we explore?

1.1. Here are some ideas for how to put the Blog on the Universe Resource Pages to work in your classroom—


The Nature of Our Existence provides a short trip from Earth to the outer reaches of the observable Universe, with a focus on our capabilities as a species of explorers. Invite your students to read the page carefully. Then, as a class, have them reflect on Earth’s place in a greater space, and explore whether their sense of “home” has been altered and how. What words come to mind after reading this story? How is Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss more than a children’s book? Is exploration something we’ve been doing for a very long time? Why? Do they see themselves as the next generation in this adventure?


Favorite Quotes for an interdisciplinary connection between science, human exploration, and literature. Students can research the authors, then discuss as a class the meaning of each quote to gain new—even profound—insights into our world and ourselves. But push them further. See if they have new questions that flow from these insights, and whether the questions reflect a broad range of topics. Then have them step back, look at what just happened, and realize that this is the nature of exploration. New insights are always gleaned in the context of natural curiosity, which leads to more questions, and defines exploration as a journey. You might also want to extend the experience with select quotes from my own Jeffisms page, which is my humble attempt to also say some meaningful things.


The National Air and Space Museum for a powerful window on the history of flight. The hope is that your students will feel pride in America, and more generally pride in the human capacity to explore—maybe even be inspired a little.



1.2. Here are some Blog on the Universe Posts that students can read to foster powerful discussions in the classroom on the nature of exploration—


Yesterday’s Launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Brings Back Memories of Apollo 11 2009-06-19

Essential question: What was it like to live through the flight of Apollo 11—the most historic voyage in the history of the human race?


SPECIAL POST: Where Were You During the Flight of Apollo 11? Remember and Share 2009-06-26

Essential question: What were the experiences of people that lived through the historic flight of Apollo 11?


An Apollo 11 Personal Story 2009-07-16

Essential questions: What is it like to meet your hero? What is the nature of human exploration?


2.  Setting the Stage: The Nature of the Solar System

2.1. Here are some Blog on the Universe Posts addressing basic Solar System conceptual understanding—


My Really Long Drive with Jordi 2009-06-06

Essential question: How can we make Solar System sizes and distances (like the size of Earth, the size of the Sun, and distances to the Moon and Sun) understandable?

Weekly Challenge 5: Dr. Jeff’s Interplanetary Travel Agency 2009-07-13

Essential question:What does the sky look like from the surface of other worlds in our Solar System?



2.2. Relevant lessons I selected from the Voyage Grade K-12 Education Module


Each lesson includes Solar System science content updated for 2009, a warm-up for pre-knowledge assessment, typically 2 hands-on activities, assessment rubrics for each activity and the overall lesson, student worksheets, answer keys, and lists of online resources. You can read about the instructional design of the lessons (layout, pedagogical approach, and design objectives) HERE.


Elementary School (Grades 3-4)

(If you wish, you can download an overview of the grade 3-4 lessons, with descriptions of the hands-on activities and connections to standards HERE)


This lessons addresses the idea that many patterns and cycles we experience on Earth actually vary from planet to planet:

Grade 3-4 Unit, Lesson 2: Designing a Scale Model of the Solar System (PDF, 620 KB)

Students conduct research on the planets, with emphasis on patterns and cycles, and gain an appreciation for the variation in length of year, length of day, and seasonal variation across the Solar System. To explore whether the patterns and cycles on the planets are related to planetary position in the Solar System, students create posters that can be used to mark the locations of the planets within a Voyage model of the Solar System.


This lesson looks at the connection between patterns and cycles exhibited across the planets, and the planets’ locations in the Solar System:

Grade 3-4 Unit, Lesson 3: Voyage Through the Solar System (PDF, 510 KB)

Students build the Voyage scale model of the Solar System on a playground and “travel” to each planet. This exercise allows students to recognize that the Sun and planets are tiny worlds in a vast space. Students also explore the similarities and differences in the patterns and cycles observable on the planets. The students come to realize that while seasonal variation (except for the length of seasons) seems independent of planet location, both the length of the day and length of the year do reflect planetary position. Students then explore why this occurs, with length of year dependent on the distance from the Sun, and length of day dependent on whether the planet is an inner Earth-like planet, an outer Jupiter-like planet, or a Pluto-like object further out in the Solar System. This experience gives students a new perspective on the Solar System, and allows them to gain a new sense of home.


Middle School (Grades 5-8)

(If you wish, you can download an overview of the middle school lessons, with descriptions of the hands-on activities and connections to standards HERE)


This Lesson provides an EXCELLENT foundational understanding of “What is the Solar System?”

Grade 5-8 Unit, Lesson 1: Our Solar System (PDF, 900 KB)

In this lesson, students tour the Solar System. They examine and define its various components—the Sun, planets, moons, comets, asteroids, and Kuiper Belt Objects. They recognize that the Solar System is the family of the Sun, an average star, and other stars have families of their own. Taking a close look at the planets they find that characteristics like size, location, composition, and presence of rings and moons, reveal two major categories of planets—terrestrial (Earth-like) and Jovian (Jupiter-like). But tiny Pluto seems to be in a class all its own, perhaps the largest of the many ice worlds discovered beyond Neptune.


Have your class set up a one to 10-billion scale model Solar System in a local park or large green space using this lesson:

Grade 5-8 Unit, Lesson 2: Voyage of Discovery (PDF, 870 KB)

Models are powerful tools of exploration, especially as students investigate the size and distance relationships between the Sun and the planets in the Solar System. Examining the relative sizes of the planets using models at a one to ten billion scale, students realize that the Earth, the biggest thing they have ever touched, is quite small in comparison to the Sun and some of the other planets. Moving outdoors, students then create a one to ten billion scale model of the Solar System. Walking through their model as cosmic giants, students are awed by the tiny worlds in a vast space, and gain a new appreciation for Earth, their home.


High School (Grades 9-12)

If you wish, you can download an overview of the high school lessons, with descriptions of the hands-on activities and connections to standards HERE)


Explore the nature of models, and the difficulties with building a model of the Solar System:

Grade 9-12 Unit, Lesson 1: A Scale Model Solar System (PDF, 670 KB)

Physical models are powerful tools of exploration. Even simple models can provide enormous understanding about the real objects they represent. In this lesson, students will investigate the properties of scale models of our Solar System. They will then try to design a conveniently-sized scale model of the Solar System to recognize that the model will likely need to be bigger than they thought.


Calculate sizes and distances for—and set up—a one to 10-billion scale model Solar System:

Grade 9-12 Unit, Lesson 2: The Voyage Scale Model Solar System (PDF, 540 KB)

It is challenging to design a scale model of the Solar System where the same scale is used to portray not only the physical sizes of the Sun and planets, but also the distances between them. Planets are tiny worlds in a vast space. In October 2001, the Voyage Scale Model Solar System opened in Washington, DC, displaying a one to ten billion scale of the sizes of the Sun and planets, and the distances between them. In this lesson, students will replicate the Voyage model to experience the size of the Solar System.


To Do With Your Family

As a family set up a model Solar System in a local park:

Family and Home Activity: Voyage! (PDF, 500 KB)

Voyage: A Journey Through our Solar System is a one to 10-billion scale model of the Solar System that was permanently installed on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in October 2001, and is being permanently installed in communities worldwide. This activity allows you to create your own Voyage one to 10-billion scale model Solar System, and bring the Voyage experience into your backyard, a nearby park, or your school playground.

3. MESSENGER at Mercury: The Planet, Mission Objectives, and Flyby #3

3.1 Introducing the Planet Mercury, the MESSENGER Mission, and the MESSENGER Spacecraft to Your Class—


The three web sites listed below do a great job of providing the basics, and are geared for students. My recommendation is to use them in advance of the flyby to orient your class. You can project them on a screen and walk through the information as a class.


The MESSENGER Education and Public Outreach Website

Basics on the Planet Mercury, including: fast facts, Mercury in history and culture, planetary characteristics, and orbital properties  (

Basics on the MESSENGER mission, including: a mission overview, mission design, spacecraft design, and the scientific instruments aboard the spacecraft  (

Where is Mercury Now? ( VERY COOL! provides a graphic looking down on the Sun and the orbits of the inner planets, and provides their positions today. ANOTHER GRAPHIC ALSO PROVIDES THE POSITION OF MERCURY IN YOUR SKY TODAY. It shows that you might be able to see Mercury in your sky right now! From Washington, DC, (my home) I see that Mercury is about 10 degrees above the eastern horizon at sunrise (you’d need to look before sunrise, actually before twilight begins or the sky will be too bright). I thought this was so cool, I created a special sub-page for this post: Witness History: See Mercury Before Sunrise! ( If you see it let me know!

Other features:

Eight Animations: read about each on the animations page ( Also, when you open the animations, be sure to click on the “About” box in the upper right corner on each animation. Here are the quick links:

Gravity Assist Simulator (

Going Around the Sun (

Planet Size Comparison (

A Day on Mercury (

The Sun on Mercury (

Beginners Fast Fact Challenge (

Advanced Fast Fact Challenge (

Planet Mass Comparison (

Two paper scale models of the MESSENGER spacecraft that you can build, downloaded as PDFs. Here are the quick links:

Basic Model (

Advanced Model (



The MESSENGER Page at AAAS Science NetLinks (

An overview of the mission, the spacecraft, the journey, and the goals

Other features:

Make A Mission ( an interactive online tool allowing you to build a virtual spacecraft to explore Mercury

Geo Hunter ( an interactive online tool to explore the geology of Mercury online



The MESSENGER: A Mission to Mercury Resources Page at AAAS Science NetLinks (

Provides links to: lessons, each with targeted grade level and lesson description; interactive online tools; and other relevant online resources



3.2. Multimedia Gallery at the Official MESSENGER Website (

This gallery includes MESSENGER images of Mercury to date (currently flybys 1 and 2), movies, animations, and photographs of the spacecraft.



3.3. More Detailed Information on the Planet, and the MESSENGER Mission

The Official MESSENGER Website has a wealth of information. It is written at a higher level than the websites in Section 3.1, and most of the content is great for high school. Here are some highlights:

What are the scientific questions being asked of Mercury? (


An overview of the MESSENGER Mission: milestone timeline, mission design, spaceraft, suite of scientific instruments (


FAQs: on The Mission, The Journey, The Planet, and The Science (


Graphic showing the current location of the MESSENGER spacecraft (


3.4 MESSENGER September 29 Flyby in the News

NASA Press Release MESSENGER Spacecraft Prepares For Final Pass By Mercury

UPI NASA Mercury probe to scan mineral ores

USA Today Mercury ready for a rare close-up

Science Daily MESSENGER Spacecraft Prepares For Final Pass by Mercury

Bad Astronomy Blog at Discover MESSENGER: Three days out from Mercury


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