The love of the stars and planets can be nurtured and grown inside any student, including the commonly apathetic middle school student, as the mysteries of the surrounding universes and deep space are taught in the intriguing manner that they intrinsically spur. The following are several sure-fire projects to spark the interest of astronomy amidst your middle school class.
1. Make a Comet: Turn your middle school class into mini-comet creators. A comet is a smaller version of a planet, made up of ice, rocks, and dust. Formed in the outer solar system, comets can orbit planets, change in composition and direction, and eventually be disintegrated by the sun or cast completely out of our solar system. Comet Hale-Bopp, the most watched of the twentieth century, lit up the skies for 18 months in 1997. Being well-documented and photographed, this comet provides a great introduction into the subject.
After the study of comets, the class can make their own with this comprehensive lab. The teacher will need to provide two cups of dry ice, two cups of water, two tablespoons of sand or dirt, a dash of ammonia and dark corn syrup, newspapers, four medium sized garbage bags, heavy duty rubber gloves, a mixing bowl, wooden spoon, and a hammer. The ingredients used stand for the real components of a comet: frozen water, carbon dioxide (in the dry ice), rocks and dust, and other organic, carbon-based substances (as in the corn syrup). First, line the mixing bowl with a garbage bag. In the following order, pour and stir in the water, sand, ammonia, and corn syrup. Using the rubber gloves to handle the dry ice at all times, place it inside the remaining three garbage bags and crush it with the hammer. Mix the ice quickly and forcefully into the bowl with the other ingredients until the combination is nearly frozen. Lifting out of the bowl with the plastic garbage bag liner, form the dry ice into a snowball shape until it is solid enough to maintain its shape. Unwrap the comet and display it in your classroom. Students can investigate it wearing the rubber gloves and using a wooden spoon. At room temperature, the comet will begin to sublimate, transforming directly from solid to gas, which occurs naturally to comets in space that are heated by the sun.
2. Satellites in Space: As satellites circle the Earth, gravity acts as a centripetal force upon the manmade spacecrafts to keep them in orbit. Gravity, of course, pulls downward on the satellite, while it strains to stay in a straight path of motion (inertia). The outcome of the gravitational pull and the inertia/centrifugal force on the satellite’s motion is an evening out; gravity pulls downward, the inertia forces the satellite outward. Consequently, no force remains on the orbiting object. A similar occurrence can be seen with a child in a playground circling on a round-a-bout; if the child lets go of the middle bar, he/she will be flung off as his/her body stays in a straight motion, but when holding onto the middle bar, the arm acts as centripetal force, keeping the child in orbit, so to speak.
Middle school students can get a better grasp on the motion of satellites rotating high above them through this hands-on, outdoor lab, great for kinesthetic learners. Each group of students will need a bucket of water. Grabbing the bucket by the handle, have each group take turns spinning the bucket around like a round-a-bout. The student’s arm acts as the centripetal force pulling the bucket down toward the center, while inertia acts upon the water, keeping it forced against the bottom of the bucket. Just as satellites remain in space, the water should remain in the circling bucket, and the students, to their disdain, will stay dry.
3. A Spectroscope Spy: Astronauts use spectroscopes to determine what elements are present in stars or other glowing bodies in space; when viewing a star through the spectroscope, astronauts compare the color pattern of the star with known element’s color patterns. Your middle school students can each make their own spectroscope and test various substances aflame in the classroom (with the teacher’s supervision).
The teacher will need black construction paper, cardboard tubes (each student could provide this from toilet paper rolls), and diffraction grating (special paper that causes light to spread out into color spectrums, and can be purchased at a scientific supply store). Have the students cut out a circle from the black paper to fit over the end of the tube. The students will then cut the circle in half, taping the halves onto the end of the tube so a slight parallel slit exists between the two half circles in the middle of the tube. The student will then hold a piece of diffraction grating up to the open end of the tube, looking through the grating toward the other end with the tube pointed at a fluorescent light. Now, rotate the grating until the student can see an illuminated color band on one side of the split black paper; when the beam of light is witnessed, tape down the diffraction grating at this point. When looking at the fluorescent light now, the student should observe colors of yellow, blue, and green due to the burning gases inside the fluorescent light. All elements produce their own color spectrum when brought to a heated glow. Test chalk; using a slightly wetted paperclip, dip the end into some chalk dust and hold it in a candle’s flame. What colors are produced by the calcium element composing the chalk? Test baking soda the same way with another paper clip. Here, the spectrum characteristic of sodium will be displayed.
4. Three, Two, One, Lift Off: Probably the most fascinating manmade spacecraft for students is the rocket. In this experiment, students will learn the basic principles behind the fueling of a rocket into space. Before designing their rockets, students can visit the Kennedy Space Center’s website where an interactive map gives the students an interactive tour of the grounds.
For the rocket building, each group of students will need a balloon, string, drinking straw, and masking tape. Have each group thread the string through the drinking straw, attaching it to something stable such as a desk. Have one student in each group inflate the balloon, holding the air inside of the balloon, not allowing deflation. Attach the balloon to the straw with masking tape. Have a student hold one end of the string taut and release the balloon. Measure how far the balloon travels! What happens here is the same as with a rocket launching; gases are pushed out the rear of the rocket when ignited, propelling the rocket forward.
Many astronomy experiments and projects for the middle school student can be found online or in various astronomy textbooks. Hopefully, with an exciting introduction to our universe now, these labs can be the gateway for further investigation by a student into the space frontier.