The Planets and Stars #41

(grades 7-12)
Soft-bound, 80 page book, 20 reproducible activity sheets, full teaching notes.

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sample book cover

Sample Activity: View

Bring the night sky into your daytime classroom or living room. Build clever models to track the sun and stars across your ceiling. Watch constellations rise and set in a baby-food-jar ocean. Pace astonishing distances between a tennis ball sun and tiny planets. See how the Big Dipper looks from other perspectives. Heavenly!

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Table of Contents for #41 The Planets and Stars:

Preparation and Support

A TOPS Teaching Model • Getting Ready • Gathering Materials • Sequencing Activities • Long Range Objectives • Review / Test Questions

Activities and Lesson Notes

  1. 1. Landmarks
  2. 2. Pointer Box
  3. 3. Sun Declinations
  4. 4. Follow that Star
  5. 5. Earth in a Jar
  6. 6. Ocean in a Jar
  7. 7. Dipper Box
  8. 8. Polar Graph
  9. 9. Apparent Size
  10. 10. Lots-o-Dots
  11. 11. Light Lightning
  12. 12. Star Travel
  13. 13. Our Solar System
  14. 14. Sky Sphere
  15. 15. The Zodiac
  16. 16. Star Search
  17. 17. Proportional Planets
  18. 18. Elbow Room
  19. 19. The Wanderers
  20. 20. Our Milky Way

Supplementary Pages

Landmarks maps • Earth circle • Shadow screen • Round map • Sun arrow • Concept list (2) • Concept list (5) • Sun protractor • Long maps • Short map • Compass circle • Concept table (6) • Concept list (14) • Big dipper • View point • Polar graph • Angle finder • Star ruler • Lots-o-dots • Kilometer bar • Solar system squares • Sun ruler • North stars • South stars * Zodiac ring • Sky tabs • Earth ruler • Planet finder • Concept list (16) • Concept list (19) • Star dictionary • Sky wheel • Milky way disk • Galaxy ruler


Complete Master List for #41 The Planets and Stars:

Key: (1st/2nd/3rd) denote needed quantities: (1st) enough for 1 student doing all activities; (2nd) enough for 30 students working in self-paced pairs; (3rd) enough for 30 students working in pairs on the same lesson. Starred* items may be purchased below.

  1. 1/15/15: scissors
  2. * 1/8/8: rolls masking tape
  3. 1/2/8: meter sticks
  4. 1/1/1: wall clock with second hand (or wristwatches)
  5. * 1/1/1: package standard 1 inch straight pins
  6. 1/1/1: package extra long pins, about 1.5 inches (optional)
  7. 2/30/30: Post Grape Nuts cereal boxes, 32 ounce size, or equivalent
  8. 1/5/15: pennies
  9. * 1/5/5: rolls clear tape
  10. * 2/30/30: straight plastic straws

  11. * 1/1/1: box paper clips
  12. 1/3/8: paper punch tools
  13. * 1/1/1: spool of thread
  14. * 1/5/15: metal washers
  15. 1/5/15: pounds gravel, large rocks or bricks (optional)
  16. * 1/15/15: medium baby food jars with tight-fitting lids
  17. 1/5/15: graduated cylinders, 500 mL (optional)
  18. 1/1/1: roll paper towels (optional)
  19. 1/3/8: bottles white glue (optional)
  20. * 0.1/1/1: cup oil-based modeling clay

  21. * 1/1/1: bottle food coloring with dropper dispenser, blue is best
  22. 1/1/1: roll plastic wrap
  23. 1/30/30: flashlights filtered with red cellophane, or red LEDs for night vision
  24. * 1/5/15: hand lenses
  25. 1/1/1: stack of standard-sized newspaper, 3 feet high
  26. 1/5/15: each, yellow and black crayons or markers
  27. * 3/63/75: generic paper plates, 9-inch diameters with traditional rippled border
  28. 1/5/15: drawing compasses
  29. 1/1/1: shaker of black pepper
  30. 1/1/1: container of coarse sand with pebbles

  31. 1/15/15: tennis balls, new or used
  32. 1/1/1: roll heavy string
  33. * 1/2/2: package of clothespins (optional)
  34. 1/1/1: copy of The World Almanac and Book of Facts, or equivalent on-line reference
  35. 1/1/1: a current calendar with moon phases (optional)
  36. 1/1/1: ball of cotton

Convenient Shopping:

Solar Eclipse Viewing Glasses

CE Certified for solar viewing - use with book #40 The Earth Moon and Sun and #45 Pi in the Sky

Special offer for the 2014 partial solar eclipse on October 23rd. Most of North America will be able to see a partial eclipse, which will be especially dramatic in the northern states and Canada. While supplies last, get yours today!

Please remember that looking at a solar eclipse without proper eye protection can be very dangerous. Only look directly at the sun with solar eclipse viewing glasses.

Baby Food Jars - assorted

without lids

Each set includes 4 small, 4 medium and 4 large glass jars.

Clay - modeling

oil-based, non-drying

Sold by the 100 gram stick, about 1/4 cup, in assorted colors (our choice). One stick serves a whole classroom for TOPS applications.


wooden, spring-action

These are handy lab items to keep in stock. We use them as bulb holders, tongs, clips, and more.

Food Coloring - blue

liquid, dispensed in 1 fl. oz. squeeze bottle

A handy science supply used to make water more visible. Used in #39 Corn and Beans, #41 Planets and Stars, and several other TOPS modules.

Magnifier - hand lens

3X clear plastic hand lens

You'll find many uses for this basic tool of scientific inquiry. Very nice quality for the price. Supports #17 Light, #23 Rocks and Minerals, and #42 Focus Pocus. (One 3X hand lens is also included in each #100 Triple Magnifier Kit.)

Paper Clips

size #1, steel, box of 100

Paper clips have 1001 uses in TOPS experiments, and science in general. Feel free to use paper clips you already have, but be aware that different brands come in different sizes and weights. In experiments where uniformity is important, don't mix brands.

Paper Plates

9-inch diameter, generic white

A classic ripple edge-design, with wide application in TOPS experiments. Buy these here for convenience, or for less at your local grocery store.

Straight Pins

steel, one and 1/16 inch long

Used in many TOPS experiments. Sometimes required for their magnetic properties. Don't purchase aluminum straight pins by mistake.

Straws - straight

plastic, thin

Any length straw, between 0.20 and 0.25 inches in diameter is suitable. Grocery stores generally carry straws with flexible "elbows." You can use those if you cut off the bendable section before using.

Tape - clear

3/4 inch x 1000 inch roll

Your standard desk tape with matte write-on surface.

Tape - masking

3/4 inch x 55 yd roll

A handy science supply used in most TOPS modules.


light duty, 25 yd spool

Just plain old thread. Used in many TOPS titles, especially in Pendulums #34.

Washers - small

7/8 inch flat washer with 3/8 inch hole

Used in many TOPS labs. Item #1290 (medium tubing) used in #16 Pressure fits through these smaller washers.

Teaching Tips for #41 The Planets and Stars:

Watch for new developments on the re-, re-, re-classification of Pluto. Formerly a planet, it has been redefined several times in the past few years. Various groups in the the science community have called it a minor planet, a plutoid, and finally (perhaps), a dwarf planet. A large segment of the general public would prefer that it keep its status as a small planet. As of early 2009, the debate may still be in orbit.

Keep a few constructed instruments available in a corner workstation for students who finish tests early, or for constructive activity on rainy days. For example, students might use the mini-planetarium in a jar to predict the rising and setting of constellations that evening, or on a specific date, like a birthday.

We encourage improvisation - it's one of the main goals of our hands-on approach! You and your students might invent a simpler, sturdier or more accurate system; might ask a better question; might design a better extension. Hooray for ingenuity! When this occurs, we'd love to hear about it and share it with other educators. Please send ideas and photos to

Lesson by Lesson Objectives for #41 The Planets and Stars:

  1. Lesson 1: To fix reference points that line up with true north in your classroom, on the school grounds and at home.
  2. Lesson 2: To construct a Pointer Box to determine the locations of Polaris and the celestial equator at your latitude.
  3. Lesson 3: To trace the path of the sun across the sky at its solstice and equinox positions. To observe where the sun rises and sets during different times of the year.
  4. Lesson 4: To verify that the Sun Straw on the Pointer Box really tracks the apparent path of the sun across the sky.
  5. Lesson 5: To construct a mini-planetarium in a baby food jar. To model the apparent motion of the sun and stars around our rotating earth.
  6. Lesson 6: To model how the sun and stars move relative to a flat horizon. To compare this motion at different latitudes.
  7. Lesson 7: To distinguish between the actual positions of stars in space and their apparent position on the celestial sphere.
  8. Lesson 8: To plot star position on a polar graph in terms of sidereal time and declination. To use the resulting star map to predict star positions in the daytime sky.
  9. Lesson 9: To estimate the apparent separation between stars in the Big Dipper. To observe polar constellations in the night sky.
  10. Lesson 10: To develop a concrete understand of the quantity 'one million.' To appreciate the dramatic increases the result from an exponential expansion.
  11. Lesson 11: To develop an understanding of astronomical distances within our solar system. To define the speed of light.
  12. Lesson 12: To distinguish between actual star distances, measured in Light Years, and apparent star separations measured in degrees. To appreciate the vast magnitude of interstellar space.
  13. Lesson 13: To draw the paths of the orbiting planets in our solar system to scale.
  14. Lesson 14: To assemble a paper globe that maps the constellations. To compare this model of the celestial sphere of previous models.
  15. Lesson 15: To cap the Sky Sphere with a Zodiac Ring that fixes the sun's ecliptic position among the constellations in terms of calendar date and sidereal time.
  16. Lesson 16: To search out constellations in the night sky over the next few weeks and record them on a Sky Wheel.
  17. Lesson 17: To draw the sizes of the sun and the planets to scale on notebook paper.
  18. Lesson 18: To model the sizes of the planets and their distances from the sun in the same scale model. To appreciate that our solar system is a very empty place.
  19. Lesson 19: To track the planets and the moon on the ecliptic circle. To visually identify at least one planet and document its shifting position among the background stars.
  20. Lesson 20: To model the Milky Way Galaxy and understand its orientation in our night sky. To appreciate the vastness of intergalactic space.

National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) for #41 The Planets and Stars:

TEACHING Standards

These 20 activity sheets promote excellence in science teaching by these NSES criteria:
Teachers of science...
A: ...plan an inquiry-based science program. (p. 30)
B: and facilitate learning. (p. 32)
C: ...engage in ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning. (p. 37)
D: and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning science. (p. 43)

CONTENT Standards

These 20 activity sheets contain fundamental content as defined by these NSES guidelines (p. 109).
• Represent a central event or phenomenon in the natural world.
• Represent a central scientific idea and organizing principle.
• Have rich explanatory power.
• Guide fruitful investigations.
• Apply to situations and contexts common to everyday experiences.
• Can be linked to meaningful learning experiences.
• Are developmentally appropriate for students at the grade level specified.

Unifying Concepts and Processes

  1. NSES Framework: Systems, order, and organization • Evidence, models and explanation • Constancy, change, and measurement • Evolution and equilibrium • Form and function
  2. Core Concepts/Processes: Pace off a model scale solar system in astronomical units (0.1 AU, 0.2 AU, 0.3 AU...), from a tennis-ball Sun to the specks and pebbles representing our planets. • Model constellations and galaxies. • Build a universal star locator in a baby food jar.

Science as Inquiry (content standard A)

  1. NSES Framework: Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations. • Design and conduct a scientific investigation. • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data. • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. • Think critically and logically to connect evidence and explanations. • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations. • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
  2. Core Inquiries: Locate Polaris and the celestial equator at your latitude. • Track the apparent motion of the Sun and stars across day and night time skies. • Construct a sky sphere between paper plates. • Visualize a million dots.

Earth and Space Science (content standard D)

  1. NSES Framework: Objects in the sky • Changes in earth and sky • Structure of the earth system • Earth in the solar system • Origin and evolution of the universe
  2. Core Content: True north • Polaris • Celestial equator • Latitude • Solstice • Equinox • Apparent position and motion • Real position and motion • Star constellations • Sidereal time • Solar Time • Declination • Exponential expansion • Astronomical distance • Speed of light • Actual distance in light years • Apparent distance in degrees • Model solar system scaled in distance and size • Celestial sphere • Zodiac • Wandering planets among fixed background stars • Milky Way Galaxy • Orders of magnitude