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Bakersfield College

William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

The Changing Universe

Grade level: 8-12

Content area: Earth Science


Click on the lesson (1-6), for more information.

You may also jump to the Assessment or Planetarium Visit sections.

Lesson 1: Modeling the Universe

About 2 days

Lesson modified from Modeling the Universe Introductory Activity,


  • Given various everyday objects, students will construct a model of the universe to demonstrate their preconceived understanding and misconceptions of the structure and composition of the universe.
  • After a brainstorming activity about the astronomy and the universe, students will organize the brainstorming ideas/topics into a graphic organizer and then build a KWL chart.

Note to teacher: There is no formal assessment for this lesson. The students are constructing tools to help guide their learning through the unit.

Activity 1: Discussion

  1. (About 10 minutes) As a class, use Inspiration’s rapid-fire option to brainstorm everything students know about astronomy and the universe. Because the study of astronomy is such a broad topic, break down the brainstorming into sub-topics: stars, galaxies, solar system, tools of astronomy, and space in general. Ask questions like:
    • How are away are (objects - stars, galaxies, planets, sun?)
    • Can they be seen without the aid of a telescope?
    • Can they be seen with a telescope?
    • What do they look like?
    • How big is the universe?
    This will help to bring out some of the misconceptions that students have about the universe, the objects in it and how astronomers know. Any ideas that create discussions amongst the students, mark for follow-up and tell the students that you will get back to it at a later time. (One of the culminating activities is about disproving misconceptions.) Print out a copy of the brainstorm for each student group (3 students to form a cooperative group), or if technology permits, have groups access the brainstorm on the student computers or handheld computers (PDA). Try to eliminate as much paper as possible.
  2. Assign each group the task of organizing the brainstorm into a logical format. (About 15 minutes)
  3. Discuss what a scientific model is, how it is used and what its value is. Ask students to name some familiar models: globe, doll house, map… Remember models some times don’t show the entire picture and can misrepresent some features of the real thing. (About 5 minutes)

Activity 2: Making a model of the universe

  1. Challenge students, in groups of three, to create a model of the universe in 30 minutes or less. This activity can be messy and involved or not depending on what kind of supplies you give the groups to use. Non-messy: Black construction paper and colored chalk. Messy: as many things you can gather to represent objects in the universe. For instance: construction paper, scissors, cotton balls, balloons, buttons, confetti, toothpicks, play dough, pompoms, slinky, bows, markers, glue, glitter, colored pipe cleaners, old CDs, ribbons, etc. For the messy models that are too big to keep around, take a picture of it. At the end of the unit students will create new models and compare them to their old models. The model will help reveal misconceptions that students have about the universe.
  2. Each student takes on one role: artist-creates the model with input and assistance from other members; recorder-records model features (use the worksheet as a guide); speaker-explains the model to other groups. [The worksheet can be downloaded from the last page of the Modeling the Universe Activity pdf found here]
  3. (~15 min.) Now have groups meet with two other groups (3 of the small groups to make one large group) and compare their models. Students must address the following: what features does the model represent, what features are misrepresented, what features are omitted, what questions did you have while making the model. Students will review each of the models. Students will need to ask questions and provide helpful suggestions with explanations (constructive criticism) to the other groups about organization, clarity of questions and ideas, and be willing to listen, defend their idea and incorporate changes.
Homework Assignment
  • Construct a KWL chart about the universe.
  • Prepare 3 direct questions about what they want to know about: the solar system, stars, galaxies, and Earth’s place in space. Note: Provide the students with the Earth Science standards that pertain to Astronomy for their grade level and the requirements for their portfolio (see below). The students can use these as a guide to help them refine their questions and prepare for their upcoming trip to the planetarium.

Lesson 2: Earth’s Geologic Evolution

About 3 days

Standards: 8th grade Earth Science 4a,b,c,d,e; 9-12 grade Earth Science 1a,b,c,f


  1. After viewing the movie “Origins: Earth is Born”, students will diagram 5 major evolutionary events of Earth’s birth into a flow chart format.
  2. After viewing the movie “Origins: Earth is Born”, students will describe with supporting detail at least 3 new things they learned about Earth’s evolutionary history and one question that the movie didn’t answer for them.

Activity 1: Movie and worksheet

To begin the study of Space related Earth Science start with the movie Origins: Earth is Born, a Nova program on Earth’s geologic evolution. (The movie is 1 hour long) The link will take you to the Teacher resource page and program overview. There is also a link on this page for buying the DVD of this movie.

Use the suggested viewing ideas that are listed and/or use the attached movie question guide worksheet, one per student. Allow time for students to complete the worksheet and discuss what they learned.

Assessment option: group members check each other’s work for completeness and accuracy.

Activity 2: Flow chart

  • Create a flow chart, using Inspiration or other software that can generate graphical organizers, depicting the major evolutionary events of Earth’s birth shown in the movie using their worksheet/notes.
  • Share the flow chart with at least one other group and obtain feedback about how to modify it for clarity, organization, details, and accuracy.
  • Transfer flow chart elements onto individual index cards (descriptions and/or drawings of elements like primordial Earth, Meteor bombardment, creation of Moon, volcanism, etc.). Student groups pair with another group and try sorting each other's cards into the correct order.


Groups should now review their KWL chart and make any additions and/or changes. Also students should write a reflective journal entry describing at least 3 new things they learned about Earth’s evolutionary history and one question that the movie didn’t answer for them then share their reflection with one other person.

Lesson 3: Exploring Stars

Standards: 8th grade Earth Science 4a,b; 9-12 grade Earth Science 2b,d,f


Activity 1: Online Activities - Star Light, Star Bright

Activity 2: Life cycle of stars


Extension Activity

How to Build a Star

A Star is Born

Lesson 4: Galaxy Comparison and Classification

Standards: CA Earth Science standards: 8th grade 4a,b; 9-12th grade 2a,b 9-12th grade Investigation & Experimentation 1a,d


Activity 1

Activity 2

Assessment (individual)



Lesson 5: Tools Astronomers Use

Use the activities found in “A Teacher’s Guide to the Universe” by Lindsay Clark.

  • For scale models, see Size of the Universe parts 1-6 on the table of Contents page.
  • For distances, start at Basis for Distance Measurement and do the following parts 13, 14, and 18-21.

If you don’t have enough time to spend on these activities, discuss the background information on parallax, Doppler shift, red shift, and galactic brightness.

Lesson 6: Common Misconceptions in Astronomy


Before studying this unit students may have had some misconceptions about one of the topics you now have studied. However, students have since learned a great deal about stars, galaxies, origin of Earth and some of the tools astronomers use to make their discoveries. Hopefully their misconceptions have been cleared up.

In this activity students will visit this website and pick two misconceptions from each of the following categories: Stars, Solar System, Galaxies, Cosmology (except for those that discuss God), Astronomers (found under History and Philosophy of Astronomy) and explain why they are misconceptions by sighting evidence to reveal the misconception. This would be another activity where students could create the grading rubric for the assignment.

Some common misconceptions are:

  • Space is empty between planets, stars, and other objects.
  • All radiation is harmful.
  • The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation consists of only visible light.
  • The Sun is not a star.
  • We view all space objects with only an optical telescope.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope can view all objects in space by traveling there to get a better image.
  • Stars are on fire and can burn out.
  • "Red hot" is hotter than "white hot".

Extension Activity

Make a list of astronomy facts and concepts mixed with some misconceptions and ask the students to pick out the misconceptions and then explain why they are misconceptions.

Unit Assessment

Activity 1

This activity should be done in groups.

Students are to construct a model of the Universe as they did in Lesson 1 but now applying what they have learned in this unit. This second model should highlight all that the students have learned about during the course of this unit.

The model should have the components scaled somewhat relative to one another i.e. Sun is much larger than the planets, Jupiter is larger than Earth, moon is smaller than Earth, solar system is smaller than Milky Way galaxy, etc.

If possible, have students include a scale model of the Solar System.


Activity 2

This activity should be done individually.

In an essay, the student is to compare their first model with this revised model. The essay should address the following points/questions*:

  1. What are the differences?
  2. Expand on the following: “(The) revisions are based on the following new insights, data and or understanding...”
  3. How has your understanding of the tools of astronomy affected the way you designed your new model? (Use of light, measurements of distances, etc.) “My Model now helps to explain ... ”
  4. “Features of the universe this new model misrepresent ... ” Why are these features misrepresented?
  5. “Features omitted from this new model ... ” Why are these features omitted?

* The quoted portions are taken from Modeling the Universe Journal.


You may wish to create a checklist of the necessary components of the essay and follow the school’s writing rubric.

Or, have students brainstorm what the science content of the rubric should be instead of using the checklist.

Planetarium Visit

The planetarium field trip can come at any time between lesson 1 and the culminating activities.

Before students arrive, they should be familiar with the questions that need answers. Refer students to their KWL chart.

They will not be able to write anything while in the planetarium as it will be very dark. They will have to wait until after the show to write down information that they learned in the show.

Enjoy the show and then ask your questions that didn’t get answered in the show.

After leaving the planetarium and before boarding the bus back to school, if there is time, have the cooperative groups meet to debrief and share what they learned, what they liked/didn’t like, and what questions still remain to be answered. Back at school debrief as a class with each group contributing to the discussion.

You may want to use one group’s graphic organizer or KWL chart to check off items that students heard about and saw in the show.

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