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  • Topic: Comets
  • General Subject: Astronomy
  • Grades: 5-8

  • Key Questions:
    • What are the origins and nature of comets? 
    • Do they have any effect on Earth and its inhabitants?
  • Learning Objectives
  • History of human understanding about comets
  • Physical origin and composition of comets
  • Comet "anatomy" and processes near the Sun
  • The theory that a huge comet or meteor hit the earth as the cause the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  • National Science Education Standards (NSES) met for grades 5-8:
    • Science as Inquiry
    • Physical Science
    • Life Science
    • Earth and Space Science
    • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
    • History and Nature of Science
  • Other content areas:
     Mass extinctions, History of science

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Materials and Requirements

  • Time Requirements: 8-10 class periods (50 minutes each) to complete the basic module. Individual sections can be completed in 1-2 class periods, depending on class level and style of presentation. Additional time for "Killer Comets?" section, which has more advanced language and concepts. 
  • Materials Required
    For Web module:
    • Browser enabled computers with Internet connection, OR 
    • Networked computers with access to a local server loaded with the site.
    • Copies of student worksheets. 

    For Make a Comet activity:

    • Ingredients* and assembly tools for comets.
    • Printed instructions and narrative for  "Make A Comet" activity can help you guide the activity. PDF file | HTML file
    • Safety equipment: Insulated gloves and safety glasses for working with dry ice.
    • A useful site for finding dry ice in your area: http://www.dryiceInfo.com, click on the "Where to buy Dry Ice" link.

*loads a new page into this window; use your "back" button to return. PDF files require an Adobe Acrobat reader.

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All links open the document in a new window, which you may then resize.  PDF documents require an Adobe Acrobat reader.

  Astronomer Review Sheets to print:   Additional Homework Tasks:
  • Predict a Comet's Return: HTML or PDF; answer key: HTML or PDF
  • Student writing activity (Students tell what they know about comets: what comets are, where they come from, and what they are made of): HTML or PDF: answer key: HTML or PDF
  • Comets Are/Aren't: HTML or PDF.
  • Student Reader: Access and print out copies of NASA News stories on comets, meteors, and asteroids for supplemental student reading. Links to year 2000 comet news (HTML). NOTE: This page contains links to the NASA science news site.

Extra on Math: 

  • How Long is a Long Period? With answer key:
    HTML or PDF.

Student Questionnaire:

  • Tests comet knowledge and attitudes towards astronomy and the Internet. HTML

Comets Vocabulary Puzzles and Game

Puzzle I: Search for listed words in a matrix
  Word search: MSWord, PDF, or JPEG(121 kb)
  Answer key: MSWord, PDF, or JPEG(131 kb)
Puzzle II: Solve clues, then search for words
  Solve word clues: MSWord, PDF, or HTML
  Word answer key: MSWord, PDF, or HTML
  Word search: PDF, or JPEG(102 kb)
  Search answer key: PDF, or JPEG(108 kb)

"Jeopardy" Flashcard Game
Flashcards MSWord PDF, or HTML
Instructions MsWord PDF, or HTML

 

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Background Reading 

Written for this lesson:

background*: history, origins

backgroundII*: characteristics, orbits, and current news

backgroundIII*: 
Killer Comets?

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The background reading pages aim to help instructors who may be new to teaching about comets, or who would like a better grasp of some underlying concepts. They also include some links to other Web materials that focus on specific sub-topics, so you may want to plan to read them on the computer before printing. These pages do not constitute a thorough or quantitative treatment of the subject, but are intended to place comets in the broader field of solar system astronomy, which is a very lively area of current research. We hope they will also help prepare you to help your students investigate answers to their questions.

  • From NASA: year 2000 comet news* (Search other years by keywords, like those in red on this page) These stories can also be printed out to make a great Student Reader for supplemental study. Many are available as sound files for sight-impaired users. 
  • Other comet and related sites: Comet Links Pages*

Teaching Tips

Preparation: It is recommended that educators go through all relevant areas of "The Comet's Tale" prior to presenting them to the class. The Background Reading pages were written with this lesson in mind, and are recommended also. The additional sites in the Comet Links Pages* can help expand knowledge in various sub-areas. An extensive glossary of comet-related terms is accessible from every page on the student site. 

Technical: Frames and Tables capable browser such as Netscape Navigator 3.0 or Internet Explorer recommended. See Plug-in help for links to download sites. If Internet connection time is a problem, it is advisable to load the entire site either onto the presenting computer (if using a projector) or onto a local server site, if possible. If your school has a Web page of its own, then you have a local server. Ask your technical assistant for help. This enables Web browsers to access images from a local hard disk, instead of relying on a school district network, which may be carrying a lot of traffic.   

Student Prerequisites:  Students should be familiar with basic layout of the solar system and names of planets. Although the student pages are self-contained and simple to navigate, remember that novice Web users will need more time. 

Common Vocabulary:  The non-astronomy vocabulary of this lesson should be appropriate to 6th grade. However, work with a group of 6th grade English Language Learners indicates some common words will probably be new to some students. Instructors may want to do "vocabulary forecasting" by putting up a list of the new words students may encounter in each part of the lesson. Some of these words also appear in the Astronomer Review worksheets, Homework Tasks, and flash cards.

List of Challenging Words: HTML* or PDF

Sequence: The site has been organized to progress from engaging images to the what, how and why of comets. 

  • The Gallery will introduce students to stunning comet images from recent years, many within their lifetimes. Its purpose is to engage students, and help them see comets as a subject of current interest. Items of current interest are also interspersed in other sections: the end of History, Origins, and Orbits.
      
  • The History section is meant to alert students to some of the important questions about comets--what are they, where do they come from, what are they made of, and how do they behave?--and the working of the scientific process. Encourage students to examine their own existing ideas as they read the embedded questions in the History pages. They may find some of their own notions are more sophisticated than ideas from earlier centuries, or that they have big gaps of gray uncertainty. Self-awareness is the first goal, but they may need to be reassured they are not expected to have the "answers." 

  • The order of the main sections can be discretionary to some degree.  The Orbits section relies on the concepts of the Origins section. The Characteristics section benefits from considering comet composition in the comet-making activity and the game beforehand. These two caveats suggest at least two other ways to organize the material:
  1. Gallery, History, Origins, Orbits, Make a Comet, Play the Game, Their Place in Space 
  2. Gallery, History, Make a Comet, Play the Game, Their Place in Space, Origins, Orbits 
  • The worksheets for the text sections are tools for students to continue identifying and recording their mental images (models) and understandings of text. The material in the worksheet answer keys consists mostly of concept statements, not accurate examples of how students may be able to express these ideas, or rigid requirements for everything they should write.
  • Material in the background reading, such as how comet orbits are believed to evolve can be shared with more advanced classes, depending on the time available.
  • The Killer Comets section may be too advanced in concept and vocabulary for some students.  It assumes some acquaintance with geologic dating from strata, and some physical and life science.

Class Management:  While students can do a self-paced tour of the lesson and answer the "Astronomer Review" worksheet questions, small group work or peer evaluation of some tasks can give students exposure to each others' ideas. The sectional organization of the site may also lend itself well to the jigsaw peer-instruction technique; have each of several small groups become experts on one section, then present to the class.  Use a computer projection system, if one is available, for group work. 

Students can do extra activities while waiting for computers to become available, but the comet-making should be done by the entire class.  It can be accomplished in an hour, with the right preparation. See the tips in the narration sheet. 

Other Activities:  

  • The "extra task" worksheets may be assigned for at-home study as they do not require use of the Web site. 
  • Do the "Comets are/Comets aren't" exercise after the history section, to record students existing knowledge and beliefs. Then repeat after the "Place in Space" section for review or assessment. You can use it for homework by having students make their own lists at home, then bring them in to share.

    When discussing what comets are and aren't, review more material by allowing lots of facts and ideas rather than just nouns.  For example, Comets Are: made mostly of frozen gas, like big dirty snowballs, orbiting the Sun, very old. Comets Aren't: made of rock, always on fire, orbiting the earth, still being created, or mostly in the Oort Cloud.

  • This page of links to recent news about NASA comet research can provide background on what is happening with recent comet and asteroid observations and space missions. 
  • Vocabulary drill puzzles can be used for at-home, or quiet self-study. Puzzle II has two stages: first, students use clues and the number of letters to figure out the list of terms.  Then they search for these words in a letter matrix, as with Puzzle I. Teachers may assign all or part of this puzzle, which can be completed in stages by students, according to time and pace of the lesson. 
  • The flash card set can be used for a participatory "Jeopardy" game (see instructions).  When playing in class, many of the "answer" cards interlink with the content of others, so students may be able to get more of the questions and assimilate more material the second time through the deck. 
  • Meteorites in the rain barrel: In the Educator's Guide to Micrometeorites*, the solar system experts at NASA's JPL laboratory share an easy method for collecting meteorites that anyone can use. Your students might like to collect some and look at them under a microscope.  Do they look the same as specimens from Earth?

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