Middle school students are at a perfect age for beginning a more in-depth study of astronomy. Here are a few suggestions for projects for middle school students.
1. Get them excited using Google Sky.
Kids love to be online these days, so here's an online project to get them excited enough about astronomy to go out and look at the sky!
The latest version of Google Earth now has Google Sky, which gives you your very own planetarium. With Sky you can explore the constellations in the sky above where you live or on the other side of the Earth, you can track the planets, or zoom in to any of 200 million galaxies in the database. There's an enormous amount of information in the database to help the students learn as they explore.
To view Sky, you will need the latest version of Google Earth. Start up the program and navigate to your home town (if you want to see the sky at your home) and click on the new Sky icon in the toolbar (next to the map icon), or select "Switch to Sky" from the View menu.
The first thing you will see is the constellations in the night sky above where you live. Then (if you do nothing) you are taken to an opening screen with many icons to explore. The Layers section on the left of the screen gives you lots of choices for exploring the universe. You can also type entries into the "Search the Sky" box. Try searching for each of the planets in turn, for example. The slider at the top of the screen lets you track the planets - click on the play button to start.
2. Watching the sky.
Now they're excited about astronomy, it's time to go outside at night and look at the sky. First, have your children determine what phase the moon is in, and make sure they understand what causes the phases of the moon. (If you need help with this http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question3.html is a good resource.)
Next, help them to identify any planets in view at the moment (Google Sky can help with this as there is a planet tracker that shows where the planets are at any given time.) Planet risings and settings are often included in the weather section of newspapers.
Help the children to identify and name the constellations in view. Again, Google Sky will help here, or refer to an online constellation site such as: http://www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky/catalogues/constellations.html.
It is also fun to have a meteorite (shooting star) and satellite spotting competition.
3. Join the NASA kids' club.
NASA has a great kids' club to help get children excited about astronomy and space travel. Their site is at:
http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forkids/kidsclub/flash/index.html. There are dozens of games for kids of all ages, and lots of information on stars and the solar system. Start with "Pick a Planet" on the home page, or with one of the games such as "Go to the Head of the Solar System" on level 5.
4. A trip to the planetarium.
If you are anywhere near a planetarium then a trip there is a must. If you live in the US or Canada, this website will help you find a planetarium near you: http://find.mapmuse.com/interest/planetarium. In the UK, check http://www.planetarium.org.uk/fsets/map_fset.htm.