Pirate treasure mystery - National STEM Centre

By Hector Daniels,2014-09-03 13:00
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Pirate treasure mystery - National STEM CentrePira

Pluto planet no more

    Amidst emotional scenes, the meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague this summer downgraded Pluto to the new category of Dwarf Planet. In this activity, students study data on planets, dwarf planets and moons. They use the data to devise their own criteria for classifying a solar system body as a planet. Finally, they examine the reasons for the IAU’s conclusion and decide whether they

    think the relegation of Pluto was the most logical conclusion the IAU could have come to.


    ; How science works interpreting data and using creative thought to test and

    develop theories; uncertainties is scientific knowledge and ideas; the role of

    the scientific community

    ; Solar system


    ; The solar system

Curriculum links

11 14 The solar system (KS3 QCA module 7L)

    ; Our solar system includes the Sun, its planets and asteroids and

    the natural satellites of the planets

    ; The planets orbit the Sun in similar ways to the Earth

    ; How evidence about the solar system has been collected and


    Ideas and evidence in science

    ; About the ways in which scientists work today and how they

    worked in the past, including the roles of evidence and creative

    thought in the development of scientific ideas

14 16 How science works

    ; 1b: how interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides

    evidence to test ideas and develop theories

    ; 3a: recall, analyse, interpret, apply and question scientific information

    or ideas

    ; 4c: how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas

    change over time and about the role of the scientific community in

    validating these changes

14 16 Environment, Earth and Universe

    ; 8c: The solar system is part of the universe, which has changed since

    its origin and continues to show long-term changes

GCSE specifications

    AQA Core: Radiation and the Universe - What do we know about the origins of the universe and how it continues to change?

    ; P1b 13.7 Observations of the solar system can be carried out on the Earth or

    from space

Edexcel core: Topic 12 space and its mysteries

    ; P1b 12.15 Use data sources to compare the relative sizes of and distances

    between Earth, our Moon, the planets, the Sun, galaxies and the Universe

    OCR Twenty first century core Module P1 The Earth in the Universe

    ; P1.1.7 Distinguish between planets, moons, the Sun, comets, asteroids and

    be aware of their relative sizes and motions

Learning objectives

Students will learn that:

    ; astronomers collected data on solar system bodies and looked for patterns in

    it to devise definitions for ‘planet’ and ‘dwarf planet’

    ; ideas about what planets are have changed over time as the result of new

    observations, more accurate data and uncertainty about data interpretation

    ; the scientific community in this case the IAU played a vital role in

    validating these changing ideas

Running the activity

    Display page 1, and ask students what they feel about the downgrading of Pluto to a Dwarf Planet. Tell them that they will interpret data to decide whether or not they agree that the decision to downgrade Pluto was the most logical decision the IAU could have made.

Divide the class into small groups. Display page 2 and give each group a set of nine

    cards made from page 3. Tell them to discuss the questions posed in tasks 1 and 2 of page 2. Emphasise that, at this stage, there is no one right answer to the questions of task 3 the point of this activity is to get students to interpret data themselves and use creative thought to develop their own definition of a planet. For information, ‘distance from the Sun’ is given in Astronomical Units. One AU = the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

    Display page 4. Go through the information here. Emphasise the dramatic scenes at the conference, and point out that some of the astronomers at the conference got very emotional. The final decision was taken by a majority vote, so whilst the consensus was that Pluto should be downgraded to Dwarf Planet status, some astronomers were unhappy with the decision and have started a petition to get it reinstated! Also point out that improved measuring and observation equipment for

    example the Hubble space telescope has been an important factor in the decision-

    making process. Without this equipment, astronomers would not have been able to observe solar system objects such as Sedna and Eris, so there would have been less need to question Pluto’s status as a planet. For information, Eris was formerly known as 2003 UB313 and as Xena.

Finally, get students to do task 3 on page 2 using the information on page 4 under

    the heading ‘how can a body qualify as a planet’ and the data on the cards – how

    confident are they that the reclassification of Pluto was the most logical action the IAU astronomers could have taken?

Web links

    For the news story with lots of useful links, see:

For a report from the IAU meeting in Prague, see:

For an orbit simulation of Solar System bodies, look at:

For information about Pluto and other bodies in Wikipedia, see:

    Science upd8 is a joint initiative from ASE and the Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University. We are grateful for support from the Department for Education and Skills in developing this programme.

    Copyright rests jointly with the Association for Science Education (ASE) and the Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University (CSE). Teachers and others who have signed up may download and use UPD8 materials freely within their school, but other usage, or any other organization wishing to use the materials, should consult the joint ‘owners’ of the material (ASE and CSE) through

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