Real-World Science
International Year of Astronomy

Make a Telescope
What you need: One small concave lens (ask an optical store or try, a magnifying glass
What to do: Tell students to hold the small, concave lens (called the eyepiece lens) right up to their eye. Now, have them focus on something in the distance that is well-lit, like a car in the school parking lot on a sunny day. Hold the magnifying glass (called the objective lens) between the object and the eyepiece lens. Slowly move the objective lens in and out until the car comes into focus. It may seem blurry, so tell them to play around with it a bit until it works. Remind students never to look at the sun through these lenses!

Marshmallow Constellations
What you need: A map of constellations, toothpicks, mini marshmallows, black construction paper, glue, chalk, glow-in-the-dark paint (found in hobby stores)
What to do: Obtain a map of night sky constellations. (Go to download free maps.) After students are familiar with the constellations, let them make their own. Break toothpicks into lengths needed to form the imaginary lines between the stars in a chosen constellation. Poke toothpicks into the marshmallows to attach them together. Now glue the artwork onto black construction paper and write the name of the constellation with a piece of chalk at the top. Dip a paintbrush into glow-in-the-dark paint, and carefully paint only the tops of the marshmallows. Allow the work to dry. Now consult a map, and decide as a group how these constellations would fit together as a night sky. Tape the artwork to the ceiling, turn out the lights, and admire your own sky map!

Play “The Astronomer”
What you need: Construction-paper cutouts of the planets (and Pluto), a boardroom table, kids with attitude!
What to do: Let students conduct some research to find out why Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Encourage them to write at least five facts explaining why Pluto didn’t make the cut. Now, set up the classroom like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice boardroom (a long table with a chair will do just fine). Place the planet cutouts along one side of the table, and a chair on the opposite side. Let the acting begin! Have kids take turns playing Trump, listing all the reasons Pluto should no longer be a part of the group. They might say things like “Pluto, how can you be considered a planet if you are smaller than Earth’s moon? Even your own moon is half your size! And what about your erratic orbit? You cross Neptune’s orbit and don’t move on a flat plane like the rest of the planets.” Of course, the student should finish by saying, “Pluto, I’m sorry, but as far as being a planet is concerned . . . you’re fired!”

Host a Star Party
What you need: A parent with a telescope, moon pies or star fruit
What to do: Send a flyer to the parents in your school asking if any of them would be willing to bring in their telescope and share their knowledge of the instrument with your class. You’ll be surprised at how many closet astronomers you know! Depending on the power of the telescope, you might be able to view celestial bodies during the day. But hosting a nighttime star party would be out of this world, too! Don’t have volunteers? Contact your local observatory, and they’ll probably be able to put you in touch with someone in your area who’s willing to come to your school for free.

Oreo Moon Phases
What you need: Four Oreo cookies per student (plus extras), black construction paper, chalk
What to do: Project an image of the phases of the moon on an interactive whiteboard. Have partners carefully twist open their Oreos so as not to destroy the circle of filling in the center. (Refrigerate Oreos until you begin this activity to keep the icing intact.) Set the chocolate-only halves to the side. Now, let each child in the pair write four of the phases across the bottom of their paper with chalk. One writes: new moon, waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous. The other writes: full moon, waning gibbous, last quarter, waning crescent. Using their top teeth as a rake, students should carefully scrape away the filling so that what’s left is one of the four phases of the moon they’re in charge of illustrating. Have students place the Oreos on the paper. They’ll appreciate that the moon isn’t made of cheese when you let them eat their completed work!  —DeAnn Marie O’Toole