Space Lesson Plans with Google Sky


Google Earth is a terrific resource for your science classroom, even when you’re studying space rather than Earth.

Start by downloading Google Earth. It’s fast and  free. Once it’s installed on your computer (fairly automatic — you might have to give permission, but otherwise it’ll install itself), just open it up.

Get to know the program with our post on Google Earth and Your Community if it’s new to you. There are books, too, like Using Google Tools in the Classroom, which includes Sky and Earth as well as lots of other stuff. However you prefer to get to know the program, you’ll find that you can grasp the basics quickly and easily. Now you’re ready to explore space!

Use Google Sky and Google Mars to learn more about space. At the same time, work on key 21st century skills. For example, learn to use the mouse to zoom and pan as you explore. Help students learn to use the more complex navigational menus of modern websites. Participate in the community of learners around Google Earth in general and Google Sky in particular.

Beyond technical skills, there’s also media literacy. Media literacy involves being able to grasp information from a variety of media. For many students, the shift from being a passive consumer of information (“Oooh! Cool!”) to an active learner is challenging. In fact, the sheer amount of information available can feel overwhelming to some students. Google Sky, since it has an enormous and ever-changing collection of data, can be a great choice for working on this essential skill.

Google Earth Mars

Once you’ve downloaded Google Earth, you can click on the planet icon circled in the screen shot above and choose Mars.  Here are some things you can do with Mars in the classroom:

  • Watch the guided tours of Mars — you’ll find them on the toolbar on the left. Just click and enjoy.
  • Search all over Mars to find the flags that show the things that have landed on Mars. Click on the flag to get the basic information about the mission. Then add the data to your classroom timeline.
  • Have students choose a lander and click on the Mars Gallery in the toolbar on the left of the screen. Click on a particular mission and you can see where they landed, look at photos, and get information about their mission and discoveries. Have students use the information to create a report.
  • Look through books for descriptions of Mars. Compare the descriptions with what you see on the screen. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote in A Princess of Mars , “I found myself lying prone upon a bed of yellowish, mosslike vegetation which stretched around me in all directions for interminable miles. I seemed to be lying in a deep, circular basin, along the outer verge of which I could distinguish the irregularities of low hills.” Have students search for the place described.
  • Take this a step further. Obviously, most writers about Mars in the past were working with far less information than we have now. Challenge students to rewrite the passages they find with more accurate descriptions.
  • As you explore Mars, you’ll see green icons of hikers. These have excerpts from the book, A Traveler’s Guide to Mars. Read them while exploring, and find the passages in context.
  • There have been suggestions for many years that the people of Earth should populate Mars. Have students choose a site for the town they’d like to found on Mars, and write about their plans.

Instead of Mars, you can choose Sky.

Google Sky

If you begin by finding your location on the Earth and then switch to Sky (use the icon at the top of the screen, circled on the screenshot of Mars earlier in this post), you will see the sky as it appears in your own location.

Here are some things you can do with Google Sky in your classroom:

  • Choose “Welcome to Sky” in the panel on the left of the screen. There, you can explore “Getting to Know Sky” and “Touring Sky.”
  • Research the names of the constellations you see. The picture above, for example, shows Pegasus. Who is Pegasus in mythology? Have students choose a constellation, use Google Sky to create an illustration, and write the story of the mythological being in their own words.
  • Use the Earth Gallery tab on the toolbar on the left to reach the Sky gallery. In the gallery you will find “Solar System in Motion,” “Crab Nebula Animation,” “Where’s the Hubble?” and a number of other interesting things to explore. Work with students on media literacy by having them explore the items in the gallery, which include photos, movies, and informational text, and then share the things they’ve learned.
  • Put students into teams and have each team explore one location or phenomenon, such as the Crab Nebula or a planet. Have students find five very interesting things and develop questions such as, “What is the very bright thing in the middle of the nebula?” Have the teams swap question lists. Each team then searches for the answers to the questions the other team created.
  • Have students do preliminary research on objects in the sky and create a list of places they’d like to see. Give each student a turn to type an object into the Google Sky search box and fly to it. Vote for the class’s favorite “place.”
  • It’s hard to talk about places in space in a useful way. Brian Cox, in Why Does E=mc2?: (And Why Should We Care?) points out that we can extend the grids of longitude and latitude out from the earth and show where all the other planets are — except that they move, and not around the earth. We could try using the sun as a settled point and showing where the planets are — but that only works for our solar system, because it too is moving. Use the Historical Maps and Current Sky Events to discuss this point with your older students.
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