Teaching middle school aged children can be difficult. Here are some Astronomy projects that will motivate them.
BIGGER IS BETTER
This is a project that has the sole purpose of getting middle school students interested in Astronomy. The lesson is started in a rather boring fashion. Give the students the distance between the Sun and the Earth, as well as the average distances between the Sun and other planets Be sure to tell them that since most orbits are elliptical, the actual distance from the sun is not constant. Then, on your blackboard, make a small model. Put one dot (do not attempt to scale size of objects) for the sun on the far right hand side of the board. Put earth down first, which is 1 AU (Astronomical Unit - the distance from the center of the Sun to the center of Earth) from the sun. Have one AU equal one inch, which will mean your second dot is one inch to the left of the Sun's dot. Mercury (about .4 inches) and Venus (about .7 inches) will go between the Earth dot and the Sun dot. The rest of the planets: Mars (1.5") Jupitar (5.2") Saturn (9.5") Uranus (19.2") Neptune (30") and if you are old school, Pluto (39.4").
Then, tell them that this example is rather boring. Challenge them to build the largest model possible. The goal of the assignment factors in size, and creativity. They may start with your schools home town as the sun, and then find other big cities for the other planets, and make a PowerPoint presentation. They may go to the park and make a huge physical model. It doesn't matter. This project encourages students to think big, and will allow them to begin to grasp our place in the bigger astronomical picture.
THE SUN ISN'T SPECIAL
This project is also aimed to broaden your students views, and to force them to be creative. This lesson works best as an argument. Give your class the basic information (which they probably already know) that the sun is just one of many many stars in our universe. Then have half of your class argue why the sun is not unique, and half argue that it is. Being vague is important here. Tell them any and all arguments are acceptable as long as there is SOME sort of scientific fact to back it up. Your students will want a better set of guidelines, but I urge you not to give them. There is a lot of information available on the types of stars in the universe. There is also a lot of info on what makes our planet sustain life as we know it. The more vague you are in this assignment, the more it forces your students to access this information. Let your students know they are being graded on the effort and evidence put into their argument, and that there is no right or wrong answer. (of note: asking your students to answer questions that have no right or wrong answers will allow them to become more creative in finding their answers. Always a good way to get them into what they are doing.) A student may even come up with a completely off the wall answer that has something to do with aliens or what not (You've all had this type of student) but as long as they present data to support their claim, you can rest assured they have done some research. Alien life brings me to my next project.
Jupiter has a moon, Europa, that many scientists believe has running water just under it's surface. Enter Arthur C. Clarke. Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey 2 in class. Then have your students read 3001: Final Odyssey (don't worry too much about skipping 2061) and use that as a jumping point for discussing life on Europa. Break the kids into two groups, one that argues for the possibility of life on Europa, and one that argues against it. Give them some information on what makes life (as we know it) possible on earth. This is an assignment that is sure to provoke your students into thinking about something bigger than sitting in science class.