Teacher Tips

Billions and Billions   Finding Time   Integrating Math  Spreading the Word   Star Party  

Billions and Billions

Dear Teachers,

Some variations of methods that my students thought of.

I was surprised that some of my students came up with the idea of lining salt grains along a cm and cubing that to find the number of grains in 1 cu cm. Then they figured out how may cu cm in the container (pi r^2 h). They multiplied the 2 numbers. One students put 2 grains up to 1 mm and 8 = grains in 1 cm. Using magnifying glassed helped them see the grains better.

Another team poured enough salt onto balance to equal .1 g. Then counted the grains. Then * 15 to get the number of grains in one serving. Then * 491, the number of servings in one container.

(Variation number of grains in .5 g * 3 = number of grains in one serving)

Another team measured 1.5 g then kept dividing by 2 by physically dividing each amount in half until they had a small enough amount to count. Then multiplied back until back to 1.5 g.

Most of my students had numbers between 1.9 and 5 million. I hope to have results on my web page soon.

I kept telling students how scientists cannot always use direct measurement (counting the grains one at a time). Therefore, methods must be used to estimate. To emphasize this, I asked the students how long would it actually take to count one million, billion or trillion if you counted one grain of salt each second.

(That is
one million seconds = ? time that you can visualize (min, hr,day,years)
one billion seconds = ? time that you can visualize (min, hr,day,years)
one trillion seconds = ? time that you can visualize (min, hr,day,years)

Using calculators they calculated that
one million seconds = 11.7 days
one billion seconds = 31.7 years
one trillion seconds = 31,700 years

(This allowed them to use the 10^x function on their calculators - not even invented when I was in high school or college!!)

Some students did not even try. Some started by trying 60*60*24*365. (I am always amazed at how little some students know about basic conversions.)


This activity also showed that different CORRECT methods can be discovered by scientists (and students) - not just one right way.

Cathy McQuone

Finding Time
Dear PTK'ers,

I have had pretty good luck using PTK programs in my science classes for the past few years. I work at a private school so my students are pretty motivated. They really get into PTK. I have incorporated this program into my classes using two very different formats.

The first year with Live From Mars I met with a small group of students during a study hall. We started with 8 students and the group grew to 38 by the end of the year. We purchased the media kit and just did the activities the group wanted to do. We jumped around quiet a bit. By the end of the year the group size had grown and they were staying after school to do more.

The following year I had all of my students participate in the project Live From the Rainforest. Our main curriculum is genetics, electricity and earth science. About once each week we had a "rainforest day", and worked on the PTK module. Some of the activities could be done in one period while others took two or more. If necessary we simple had "rainforest day" two days in a row. I frequently gave the students assignments to do outside of class. Many of these would be due in a week or when we next on a "rainforest day". This seemed to work however some students would forget to complete assignments over the week. Most of the students would complete the work early.

Our science program is activity driven so it was easy to plug PTK into the current school year. I had to drop some of the laboratories from my core content and insert PTK activities in their place. I still cover the same amount of material each year as I did before I started using PTK, I just ask my students to complete the two best genetics labs instead of three. The extra day gained becomes a Rainforest day or in this year a "SUN" day.

If your students take to the program like mine do then no administrator would ever question the validity of the program or the cost of sacrificing a few labs each month. Because the students are doing so much independent research outside of class they are actually doing more science now than when I didn't use PTK.

Hope this helps,


Dear Discuss-suners,

I teach high school physics and I have many budding new astronomers just waiting for stuff like Live from Mars or Live from the Sun to come out. The tight curriculum I have for them in physics offers no excitement in the way of real-time astronomy. That is something I must furnish and thank goodness for these Live From... modules. I cannot afford a 4 week piece of time but I can give my students on day a week for as long as it takes to cover the material, and I have found in the past that the material is so versatile that I can often refer to it throughout the year once they have covered a particular unit. I am still using many of the ideas from the Mars curriculum, and I think this Live from the Sun will have lots of units in it that I can use year after year. I have to supliment my courses with curriculum like this to keep my students interested and up to date with what is happening in the news. I like the approach that is made to every new topic and the versatility that allows a teacher to bring the lesson up to higher grade levels or down to lower grades.

Just my thoughts.
gheri fouts

Integrating Math
Hey where did the sun go. It is really starting to cool off here in southeast Michigan. Actually the sun is shining which is rare for the month of October.

My students have been busy constructing the solar system and have come up with some great representations.

Fourth hour made two timeline-like chart showing the locations of the planets, Oort cloud, Proxima Centari, the center of the Milky Way and Andromeda. The first scale is 10 billion km to a centimeter. This fits nicely across the back of my classroom but only allows for the planets. The second scale is 100,000 AUs to a centimeter. At this scale the entire solar system and Oort Cloud is as Ryan put it, "about an atom's thickness from the sun." Actually it comes out to about 1 mm from the sum. Proxima Centari is 2.67 m away. The center of the Milky Way is about 1.892 km away. Andromeda is 1398 km away. This blew the kids away.

Fifth hour is creating a system based on one meter equal to one million km. This puts Mercury, a pea, 58 meters from the sun. Pluto is 4 miles away at a popular intersection. They found it interesting that Mars was located just outside the Latin room.

Sixth hour is making models of the planets and sun. They are using the scale 1 meter equals 100,000,000 meters. The sun is 14 m in diameter so they are creating a crescent in the back of the room that goes from wall to wall. They are placing the planets on the crescent in order. Mercury is 5 cm in diameter and Jupiter is 1.4 meters.

All of the students have been building a data table showing how long it would take to travel to various destinations. They calculated that at a spacecraft speed of 40,000 mi/hr on a straight line course they could plan to arrive at Jupiter in about one year. It would take about 10 years to pass the orbit of Pluto, about 72,000 yrs to get to Proxima Centari and about 37 billion years to get to Andromeda.

Throughout the project the most common remark has been, "that can not be right, is it?" We continue to check and recheck our data but it is clear that things in the universe are far away.


Spreading the Word
Dear Detlef and others who are interested in 'selling' PTK projects,

I was going to reply to Detlef only, however, decided that there are so many ideas that I use from the general input of this entire group and will assume that there may be a few more of you out there wondering how to 'spread the word.'

I have done, at various levels of intensity, most of the PTK projects. The ones that I used from beginning to end, were LIVE FROM....Antarctica, the Stratosphere and Mars. That means that my students saw tapes of the videos, e-mailed scientists, read biographies and did many of the activities in the Teacher's Guide and I learned right along with them!! It took time to learn the ropes but we were all sooooo excited!! I soon learned that my colleagues thought it was great but, as Detlef also said, were too busy to re-invent the wheel for their own classrooms.

Then my opportunity came. The Technology Coordinator in our district asked for volunteers to do in-service sessions on projects that were working. I recieved as many resources as I could from Marc, Geoff, Erna, Jan, Pat,etc. I told the Tech Coord. that I would HAVE to have a computer lab to pull this off. So, the session constisted of demonstrating sample lesson plans (Ooblek,for example), having information brochures and samples of every Teacher's Kit for each of the PTK projects, prizes (drew a name from a hat after they signed up for the PTK mailing list) and the two hours would FLY by!! But the best part was yet to come. Everyone had a computer and I took them right to the latest LIVE FROM...and Quest/Interactive web sites. We also subscribed, RIGHT THEN AND THERE, to the Discuss...list and Update and Sharing NASA.

After local in-services for elementary teachers, I have also had the chance to present at several State Technology Conferences and Summer Geography Institutes. The key to using this format, according to the feed-back that I have gotten, is being able to get teachers on the listserves and directly to the web-sites. Last June, in Bismarck at the State Tech Conference, one of the teachers was so excited about the Live >From Mars site, that he immediately e-mailed his young daughter back home.

It makes no difference to me as to how many people are in any of the sessions.....whether it's only 2 or up to 15, we have fun!! Sorry I can't say it's 'fun in the sun' right now. We're looking forward to LIVE FROM THE SUN, but it's been a long time since we've seen it. Winter has decided to descend upon ND big-time!! I suggested to Eileen that perhaps a good issue to deal with during this latest PTK adventure was to observe how the sun can affect the general mood of people and how they cope with too much or too little sun.

Happy Holidays,
Marilyn Weiser
Grade 4-Minot, ND

Star Parties
Hi PTK'ers,

Ever since astronomy became part of our middle school science curriculum I've attempted to conduct star parties with my students. It seemed as natural as maintaining live plants and animals in a life science classroom or making actual outdoor weather measurements while studying meteorology. Ironically, many teachers cover astronomy related topics without ever considering such an enjoyable event. Fortunately, I live across the street from a city park which is easy for parents to find, provides lots of parking, has a pavilion for refreshments, yet is far enough from bright city lights to offer fair viewing opportunities. This is where I conduct our annual star party. Suggestions:

1. Dittos to Roger Stryker who suggested an 8" telescope. We conducted our event for many years with two 4" refractors set on Jupiter and/or Saturn. I always had 7-8 binoculars to share with the students and encouraged them to bring their own from home. I recently purchased an 8" Meade Dobsonian Starfinder Series scope ( about $500, also with grant funding ) and its performance is outstanding. However, most of the viewing we do is with the naked eye and/or binoculars. We have a special mount for a 10 x 50 pair which attaches to a tripod and allows the binoculars to be adjusted to different heights while keeping the viewing target in focus - great for those tall 8th grade girls and short 8th grade boys. To protect the students from tripping over the scopes in the dark, hang a glow (light) stick from each telescope. These can be found in the outdoor camping department of your local Wal-Mart, sporting goods store or hardware store.

2. Have the students build star finders in class to bring to the party. We always practice using these in advance as they can be difficult at first for the kids. They should also bring flashlights for reading the starfinders but should tape red plastic over the lens to protect their night vision. Suggest blankets, too.

3. I borrow a bull horn from the P.E. teacher to use when "walking" the kids across the sky. The neighbors get the lesson, too....whether they want to or not...ha, ha.

4. Refreshments are nice. Get parent volunteers to help in this area so astro free you to work with the kids and the scopes.

5. Invite parents, other staff, board members....super P.R. Most have never looked through a telescope and they are usually as excited as the kids.

6. Plan ahead so as not to conflict with any other school function. I usually schedule it from 9 to 10 pm.

7. We use the "homework hotline" which works great if the sky turns cloudy and you need to cancel the event. Sure beats having 100 kids call your house!

8. Keep it simple. Don't try to wow them with difficult to see objects or you'll quickly lose your audience. Save the best to last.

9. I usually spend 15-20 minutes "walking" them across the sky through several major ( easy to see ) constellations, the Pleiades, the galaxy Andromeda and then challenge them to find others using their starfinders. We eventually move to the scopes and save Saturn to the end - it's the grand finale!

10. Check the lunar cycle and pick a night near a new moon. Light from a near full moon will wash out many of your best viewing targets.

A well planned star party and cooperating weather can combine to be the highlight of the year for your science students. Please feel free to e-mail back with any questions. Happy to help :)

Tim McCollum Charleston Middle School Charleston, IL

Greetings, Tim!

The only thing I could think of to add to your detailed star party outline is a good, focused flashlight that would allow pointing out constellations and celestial objects - works like a miniature search light. I've also had turn up at school a consumer model, keychain laser light (I took it up from a student and really wanted to keep it:-). Maybe this would work even better, I don't know - I can't justify buying one to try it out.

For those who haven't already bookmarked this site: http://www.exploratorium.edu/observatory/

Lots of goodies, including calculating relative planet distances and weight on different planets, and an impressive piece on sunspots - with sound and film clips!

We're getting geared up for LIVE FROM THE SUN!

Roger Stryker 5th Grade Austin, Texas