Whether they're outdoors looking at the sky, or indoors studying the planets, middle school students can often be turned on to science through Astronomy. Some elementary-level projects are great for middle school students as well, such as learning the constellations using flash cards or an oatmeal box "planetarium" that projects the constellations on the ceiling. There are more advanced projects that middle school kids are capable of that will take them further in understanding the stars and planets.
LEARN ABOUT NASA MISSIONS
Go to the NASA website (http://www.nasa.gov/) to check out the latest missions. Keep track of the Mars Rover (http://marsrover.nasa.gov/home/index.html), stay current with the International Space Station activities (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/shuttle_station/index.html), and learn about other missions to the planets and beyond (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/index.html)
Bookstores often carry books or star charts to help a student learn the constellations. Once you've learned several, you can track them in a number of ways.
Try observing the same constellation every hour for several hours at night for one night. Sketch its position in relation to earthly landmarks, such as trees, houses, or power poles. Because the earth is turning beneath the night sky, the stars appear to be moving.
Besides turning on its axis, the earth also moves through space as it orbits the sun. Watch the same constellation once a week over several months. Make your observations at about the same time each night. Notice where the constellation is in relation to landmarks, and see if its position changes across the seasons.
TRACK A PLANET
If a window in your house has a good view of the night sky with at least one planet in view, try tracking the planet's movements. On a cloudless night, tape a clear piece of plastic to the window. Looking through the plastic at the planet, use an overhead marker or a permanent marker to mark where the planet is and the nearby stars. Leave the plastic in place for the next observations. The next clear night, align your head so that the marks you made align with the fixed stars, and mark where the planet is now.
If you can't see a planet from a window, put the plastic in a stiff cardboard frame and fix it to some object outdoors where there is a view of the night sky. You might fasten the plastic to a post, a shed, or a fence.
To find out where a particular planet is on any given night, consult the internet for sky maps. Sky and Telescope magazine (http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/ataglance) has a good roundup of visible objects in the night sky.
DETERMINE YOUR LATITUDE
Transform a school protractor, a piece of string, and a washer or rock into a simple astrolabe for measuring the angle of the north star. From that you can determine your latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. Tie the washer to the end of a piece of string about 12 inches long. Tie the other end of the string to the center of the straight crossbar on the protractor. Usually there is a hole through which you can thread the string. Hold the protractor with the crossbar on top and the curved part underneath. Be sure the end of the protractor with the "0" is closest to you. Kneel down so you're close to the earth and with one end of the crossbar close to your eye, tilt your astrolabe upward until you see the other end "touch" the north star. Have a partner look where the string falls and record the angle. This is the measure of the angle of the north star above the horizon, which, if carefully measured, should be your latitude.
MAKE A COMET
Making a comet is a fun project, but be sure to observe all safety rules. Dry ice is the main ingredient, and this substance can freeze your fingers and cause permanent damage if you're not careful. Be sure to wear thick gloves, such as leather work gloves throughout this activity.
You'll need enough dry ice to make about two cups. Buy about twice that amount shortly before you want to do the project. Some of it will sublimate into carbon dioxide gas before you begin, and it won't store for long in home conditions. Dry ice can be purchased from ice companies, many ice cream parlors, and some grocery stores. In most communities, only adults can purchase dry ice. Keep it in an ice chest packed with crumpled newspaper until you're ready.
Line a large metal mixing bowl with a large plastic trash bag. Set the following ingredients out beside your mixing bowl: two cups of water, a bottle of ammonia, a couple of spoonfuls of sand, and a bottle of dark corn syrup. Pour the water into the bowl. Comets contain a lot of water ice, and the water will become ice in a moment. Add a few drops of ammonia. Comets contain a little ammonia and other nitrogen compounds. Add the sand, since comets contain gritty minerals. Add a dash of corn syrup, which represents the organic materials that comets often contain.
Wearing gloves, take out your chunk of dry ice, which should still be wrapped in paper as you purchased it. Wrap this in a large garbage bag and smack it with a rubber mallet or hammer to break up the ice. Still wearing gloves, unwrap the dry ice and measure out about two cups of dry ice chunks. Add this to the mixing bowl. Lift the edges of the garbage bag lining the bowl and shape the materials into a round ball. Open the bag, and there is your "comet," steaming off its comet trails.
PHOTOGRAPH STAR TRAILS
If you have a 35mm camera with a timed-exposure setting, you can take photos of stars and planets. You'll need a tripod or other means of keeping the camera still. Go to a camera shop and ask for high-speed black-and-white film, at least ASA 1000. You'll also need an inexpensive cable release, which can be purchased from the camera shop if you don't already have one. Attach the cable release to your camera (the clerks at the store can show you how). Set your camera on a tripod. If you don't have a tripod, a bean bag or an old sock loosely filled with rice or beans can be used to keep the camera steady. Aim the camera at the night sky. Press the cable release button and hold the shutter open for 15 seconds. Try longer exposures of 30 seconds or a minute. The developed photos will show the stars as short streaks on the photo. If there is a planet in the picture, it will show up as a longer streak. You may get lucky and photograph a meteor, too. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the star trails will be in your picture. If you aim the camera at the north star, you can photograph the apparent movement of stars around the north star.
In addition to all of these active projects, it's nice to simply lie back on a blanket and gaze at the night sky. Choose a clear night. Take a star chart out with you to help you find constellations. Cover a flashlight with red cellophane, or use a red LED flashlight, so the light doesn't interfere with your night vision. Study the constellations, watch the moon, look for meteors, and simply enjoy being outdoors with the stars and planets gazing back at you.