Autumn Astronomy Activities for Middle School

Have you ever looked at the night sky and been amazed by all the stars? Though the nights are cool, I love stargazing in autumn. There are tremendous opportunities for night science activities throughout the fall months.

Misconceptions creep into the science of astronomy perhaps more than any other science. Would you believe that many college graduates have wildly incorrect ideas about the phases of the moon or the cause of the seasons?

You can help dispel these misconceptions by reading quality non-fiction materials and providing opportunities to engage in hands-on experiments or demonstrations designed to test hypotheses. With the help of DK Publishing, I’ve created an in-depth unit study around our autumn night skies utilizing two DK books as my spine. I hope to release the complete curriculum by years end.

Autumn Astronomy: Activities for Middle School @EvaVarga.netMany thanks to DK Publishing for providing these books to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.

Most objects you can see in the night sky are within our own spiral, disc-shaped galaxy. Did you know that when you’re looking at the Milky Way, you’re looking into the heart of the galaxy from Earth’s position on the outer fringes of one of the spiral arms? The Milky Way is at least 100,000 light years across, and contains perhaps 200 billion stars. The milky band you see in the sky is a layer of dust, gas and stars that is closer to the “galactic center”. The dust is so thick, no one has seen beyond it to the dark side of the galaxy. There’s probably a humungous Black Hole at the heart of the Milky Way, but astronomers can’t be 100 percent sure. Turns out we know more about deep space objects than we do about the center of our own little spiral, disc-shaped galaxy.

The Practical Astronomer takes you on a step-by-step journey from the basics of what can be seen with the naked eye, to how you can view more distant objects such as the planets of the solar system, and even galaxies far, far away-all in your own backyard. It is the perfect spine for a homeschool astronomy study. It provides maps of the constellations and detailed information on the planets and stars of our own galaxy.

With this book as a guide, you will be able to find planets, identify stars, track movements, find constellations, and even begin star hopping from one constellation to another. The first part of the book explains the kinds of objects you will be looking for such as planets, stars, and nebulae. Additionally, with a spherical shape in mind, it details how to navigate around the night sky. The second part of the book provides practical information regarding telescopes and keeping a log of your observations.

During the course of the year, our view of the night sky changes from month to month. Some constellations are always in the sky, while others appear and disappear over different regions.  The Night Sky Month by Month by Will Gater and Giles Sparrow shows the sky as it is seen around the world in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It is the perfect guide for amateur astronomers – the illustrated pictures and monthly sky guides will help you recognize patterns and track changes in the each hemisphere.

Astronomical Events 2015

A brilliant double planet: October 26

For the second time in 2015, Venus and Jupiter will engage in a close conjunction, this time separated by just over 1 degree, Venus passing to the southwest (lower right) of Jupiter and shining more than 10 times brighter than the huge gas giant.

  • Full Moon, Supermoon: October 27

    The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 12:05 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Hunters Moon because at this time of year the leaves are falling and the game is fat and ready to hunt. This moon has also been known as the Travel Moon and the Blood Moon. This is also the last of three supermoons for 2015. The Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual.

  • Conjunction of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter: October 28

    A rare, 3-planet conjunction will be visible on the morning of October 28. The planets Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will all form a triangle in the early morning sky. Jupiter and Venus will be only one degree apart with Mars just a few degrees to the east. Look to the east just before sunrise for this spectacular event.

  • Taurid meteor shower ‘fireballs’: October & November

    The Taurid meteors, sometimes called the “Halloween fireballs,” show up each year between mid-October and mid-November. The shower should peak from Nov. 5 to Nov. 12 in 2015. Meteor expert David Asher has also discovered that Earth can periodically encounter swarms of larger particles, which can produce fireball meteors in certain years, and 2015 is predicted to be one of those years.

  • Geminid meteor shower: December 13-14

    If there is one meteor display guaranteed to put on a very entertaining show it is the Geminids. Considered by most meteor experts to be at the top of the list, surpassing in brilliance and reliability even the August Perseids. The moon will be a narrow crescent and will set early in the evening, leaving the sky dark all through the rest of the night – perfect conditions for watching shooting stars.

Autumn Astronomy: Activities for Middle School @EvaVarga.net

Expand Your Horizons

Hands-on activities encourage children to explore astronomy concepts in a way that is fun, yet meaningful, and to broaden their awareness of astronomy as they develop and apply new skills in other subject areas. Carefully selected demonstrations are one way of helping students overcome misconceptions, and there are a variety of resources available.

Check out the many activities and lesson plans provided by the University of Texas McDonald Observatory to get started.

Approximate the relative size of the earth and the moon with my free, Balloon Moon activity

Explore how misconceptions creep into the science of astronomy 

Take part in the Global Moon Project and learn how the moon and tides are interlinked

Gather with fellow astronomy enthusiasts for the Annular Lunar Eclipse, the Perseid Meteor Shower, or a Super Moon Viewing Party

Get to know the autumn night sky in the northern hemisphere with stargazing tips from BBC’s Sir Patrick Moore and his guests on The Sky at Night.

Focus your study around the contributions of Women in Space 

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books

From fly tying and whips to architecture and Lego, passion projects don’t just provide educational value, they fuel students to take control of their education.

Passion Projects, or how we have come to refer to the independent study projects that my children have pursued over the years, are an excellent opportunity for middle and high school students to invest in themselves.

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books @EvaVarga.net Many thanks to DK Publishing for providing these books to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.

Passion Projects build a sense of ownership, improve communication skills, help develop research skills, and encourage entrepreneurship. It is not unusual for children to also have a variety of interests.

My son, for example, is passionate about Lego, Minecraft, aeronautics (as well as container ships and trains), and music. Some weeks he will devote his leisure time solely to music theory and composition. The following week, he’ll move on to Lego and spend hours building models and redesigning his Lego city.

This summer, I wanted to find a book for each of my children that not only complemented their interests but also really inspired them to take their passion projects to the next level. DK Books provides a wonderful selection of books providing inspiration to middle and high school students.

Lego Architecture: The Visual Guide

For my son, I selected LEGO Architecture: the Visual Guide by Philip Wilkinson. The book comes in an extremely durable slipcover with glossy matte finish and Lego artwork.

Each of the twenty-two offerings in the Lego Architecture line get their own section. Each also includes interesting information about the design and  many photographs of the complete piece, each from different angles. Footnotes provide additional tidbits about the design process.

You also get photos of the real architectural structure the Lego set was patterned after. There is a side by side comparison of the real thing with the Lego version, and also a history of the building and its chief designer(s).

My son has poured over this book for hours on multiple occasions. He shared, “Mom, this book is really cool. It helps me get an idea for how I want to design my Lego city buildings.”

Sketch Book for the Artist

For my daughter, I selected Sketch Book for the Artist by Sarah Simblet. My daughter has always been interested in art and in recent months has devoted considerable time to improving her drawing skills. She has watched video tutorials on YouTube, taken online illustration classes, and worked diligently in her own sketch books.

She has been delighted with Sketch Book for the Artist. The book shows many of the author’s works and is also beautifully illustrated with inspirational and exemplary works by significant artists from the Reniassance to the current era.

A variety of mediums including pencil (graphite), pen and ink, chalk, etc. are well represented. The reproductions are great and help create new ideas and directions. The author also gives tips as well as suggested exercises for improving your own skills.

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books @EvaVarga.netGetting Started

Passion Projects work well in a public or private school classroom as well. Here, students are asked to complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice and are given an hour each school day to work on their projects. This hour is sometimes referred to as the Genius Hour. Because the topics are selected by the students, they truly enjoy the research process and presenting their findings.

Getting started is easy. Ask your children or students about the passions they already have:

  • What do you want to know more about or learn how to do?
  • How does that passion inspire you when things are tough?
  • In what ways can your passion inspire others? Who do you want to help?
  • Can you be inspired to learn more about another’s passion?

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books

Whatever topic your child chooses to pursue, you’ll surely find resources and books from DK Publishing. Whether their interests are related to art, cooking, or super heroes, you’ll surely find something for everyone.