University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Planetarium Letterhead

Grades 9-12 Toolkit

This page corresponds to the Teachers 9-12 section.
Here you'll find:

Learning Activities

Theme One: Astronomical (Celestial) Objects in the Day and Night Sky

1. The Sun is the closest star to us

2. Moon is the Earth's only natural satellite

3. Stars are big balls of gas that make their own light

4. Planets (the Earth is a planet) go around stars and in our solar system they have to be big enough to form a spherical shape rather than a potato shape

5. Meteors or shooting stars or falling stars are brief luminous trails observed when a small piece of rock from space enters the Earth's upper atmosphere

6. Galaxies are large groups of stars (typically 100 billion) held together by their mutual gravitational attraction

Theme Two: The Solar System

1. Overview of solar system: it has 1 star, 8 planets, and many small objects in it

2. How do we know the physical properties of planets?

a. Space School videos on various planets

3. Formation of the Solar System

Theme Three: Earth/Moon/Sun Interactions

1. Rotation of the earth: Evidence is day and night

  • Video: Kurdistan Planetarium (Earth moves in a helical motion around the Sun as it travels through our galaxy)
2. Gravity

3. Eclipses

4. Phases of the Moon

5. Historical perspective: geocentric/heliocentric

6. Aurora Borealis

7. Solar flares

Theme Four: Constellations

1. Modern 88 official constellations, Seasonal versus Circumpolar constellations, and some basic constellations

2. Sky maps and stargazing

Theme Five: Life of a Star

1. How do stars live?

2. Stellar corpses: black holes, neutron stars

3. HR diagram

Theme Six: Forces and Physical Properties

1. Gravity

2. Inertia

Theme Seven: Space Exploration

Theme Eight: Big Bang Theory and Cosmology

Theme Nine: Exoplanets

Theme Ten: Electromagnetic Spectrum

Discussion Questions & Answers

Theme: Astronomical (Celestial) Objects in the Day and Night Sky

The sun gives us heat and light.

  • Discussion Question: What does the Sun do for us?
  • Answer: Supports all life on Earth through the process of photosynthesis, provides us with heat and light, powers the water cycle which creates our weather and climate, and provides us with seasonal cycles and even sleep cycles.

Theme: Solar System

Overview of solar system: 1 star, 8 planets, and many small objects

  • NOTE: There are only eight planets. Since 1992, we have discovered hundreds of icy bodies like Pluto with tilted oval orbits past the orbit of Neptune. These bodies are called Kuiper belt objects. Pluto is one of the larger members and has been reclassified as a dwarf planet. There are currently 5 dwarf planets: Makemake, Haumea, Ceres, Pluto, and Eris.

Theme: Earth/Moon/Sun Interactions

The Sun and other celestial objects move across the sky.

  • True or False: The Sun, Moon, and stars are always in the same places in the sky.
  • Answer: False. As the Earth rotates, the Sun, Moon and stars appear to move across the sky. They rise and set. Also, the Moon orbits the Earth once a month and the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, so the Moon and Sun pass through different parts of the sky.

  • Discussion Question: If the Earth is moving, why don’t we feel it?
  • Answer: We don’t feel it because the Earth is rotating at approximately 1000 miles per hour. We don’t “feel” that we are traveling at this speed because the Earth, our frame of reference, is traveling with us. The same is true of traveling in a car at a constant speed, unless you are looking out the window.


  • Discussion Question: What is an eclipse?
  • Answer: There are two types of eclipses: Solar and Lunar.
  • 1. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, and the Moon fully or partially blocks the Sun, and the moon's shadow falls upon the Earth. Solar eclipses are rare and only people in a limited area are able to see a total eclipse.
  • 2. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes behind the Earth in its shadow. The Earth's shadow falls on the surface of the Moon. At this time, the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned in a straight line with the Earth in the middle. Lunar eclipses occur the night of a full moon.

Phases of the Moon

  • The Moon's phases are caused by two things:
    1. The Moon revolving around the Earth
    2. The Moon reflecting sunlight towards the Earth

    Half of the Moon is always lit; however, we only see the lit portion of the Moon that is facing Earth. The light and the shadow on the Moon's surface creates the Moon phases. The Moon's orbit is responsible for the phase changes we see.

    There are eight phases that the Moon goes through and they always occur in the same order. The Sun's light seems to move from right to left across the surface of the Moon.

    The phases of the Moon are:
    1. New Moon
    2.Waxing Crescent
    3. First Quarter
    4. Waxing Gibbous
    5. Full Moon
    6. Waning Gibbous
    7. Last Quarter
    8. Waning Crescent
    ... and back to the New Moon.


  • Discussion Question: Is the Sun closer to the Earth during the summer months than during the winter months?
  • Answer: No. The Earth is not closer to the Sun in the summer.
  • The seasons happen because the Earth's rotation is tilted compared to its orbit around the Sun. In Summer our part of the Earth is tilted toward the Sun, and in winter we are tilted away. Oddly, the Earth is slightly farther away from the Sun when we are experiencing summer in the northern hemisphere. It is the tilt that causes the Sun to reach different heights in our sky at different times of the year and to shine for longer periods of time than others. The parts of the Earth where the Sun appears high in the sky experience summer and those where the Sun is low in the sky experience winter. Spring and fall occur when the sunlight is directly over the equator (in the middle) and so, neither hemisphere sees the sun at particularly high or low positions in the sky.

Theme: Constellations

Modern 88 official constellations, Seasonal versus circumpolar, and some Basic Constellations

  • Discussion Question: What are Constellations?
  • Answer: Constellations are patches of sky that contain a characteristic pattern of stars.
  • The patterns are often named after characters from ancient Greek and Roman mythology (although individual stars have mostly Arabic names). There are 88 official constellations. Common constellations visible from Milwaukee include the Big Dipper, Gemini, Orion, and Leo, to mention a few.
  • Some basic constellations Always visible at Midwestern latitudes: Big Bear (contains Big Dipper), Little Bear, Cassiopeia Spring: Gemini, Leo; Summer: Cygnus, Summer Triangle; Fall: Pegasus, Andromeda; Winter: Orion, Taurus 
  • NOTE: Ancient people observed that the Sun, Moon, and planets always seem to move across the sky through a series of twelve constellations, knows as the zodiac. In particular, a person's zodiac sign was the name of one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac that the Sun was closest to at the time of the person's birth. 
  • In Milwaukee there are stars that we can see all year round. Some we can see include the stars of the Big Dipper, and Polaris, the circumpolar North Star.

Sky maps and stargazing

  • Discussion Question: How can you tell the difference between a star and a planet in the sky?
  • Answer: The stars in the sky appear to be in fixed positions with respect to each other. They can seem like they are attached to an imaginary "celestial sphere" around the Earth. Planets move in complicated paths across the sky. They exhibit a behavior called "retrograde motion" where they appear to go backwards for a period of time relative to the background stars in the celestial sphere as they move in their orbit around the Sun. Also, planets almost never twinkle.

Theme: Life of a Star

How do stars live?

  • Discussion Question: How do stars form?
  • Answer: Stars are continually being formed and destroyed. Stars are formed, or born, in clouds of gas and dust in the interstellar medium. Gravity squeezes the mass of these "star nurseries" so that the centers become incredibly dense and hot. These extreme conditions allow hydrogen fusion to begin. The outward pressure from the fusion balances the inward force of gravity. The gas stops collapsing and a star is born.

  • Discussion Question: Can scientists determine the distance to a star?
  • Answer: Yes.  For example, scientists use parallax to determine the distance to a star.  Parallax is used to determine the angle of the star at different points in the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.  We know the distance of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and use trigonometry to calculate the distance to the star.

  • Discussion Question: If the stars were evenly spaced and the universe has always existed (eternal), would the night sky be as bright as day?
  • Answer: Yes.  There would be no dark areas because the light would shine uniformly from space and light up the night sky.

Theme: Space Exploration

  • True or False:  Space exploration has changed the lives of you and I.
  • Answer: True.  Changes that space exploration has brought to our lives include:  1.  Medical advances like MRI, CAT scan and kidney dialysis  2.  Satellites enable global telecommunications  3  satellites also aide in Earth monitoring to inform meteorologists, scientists studying global warming and other trends on Earth, and homeland security; and 4.  Robotics and microprocessors developed for NASA are used in our computers, cell phones, GPS, and manufacturing.

  • Discussion Question: Space exploration isn’t worth all the money spent on it.
  • Answers may vary. Accept all answers.  Some might include the tools and procedures that were developed for missions that now have spin-offs for our daily lives.  It might include protecting our planet from Near Earth Objects

Theme: Big Bang Theory and Cosmology

  • Discussion Question: According to the Big Bang Theory, the entire universe and its matter were compressed into a space about the size of an atomic nucleus and then the universe started expanding in all directions. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  • Answer: Agree. The Big Bang is the best scientific theory we have regarding the origin of the universe because we see remnant radiation from the early universe.  

  • True or False: There isn’t any evidence for the Big Bang.
  • Answer: False.  There is evidence for the Big Bang Theory:
    1. Leftover microwave radiation
    2. Doppler shifted light that confirms an expanding universe
    3. Dark night sky confirms that the universe is not constant or eternal.

Readings: Grades 9-12

  • Black Holes and Other Space Phenomena, Young Observer
  • The Usbourne Internet-Linked Book of Astronomy and Space, Lisa Miles and Alastair Smith
  • Nature Activities Star Gazer, Ben Morgan
  • 1000 Facts About Space, Pam Beasant
  • A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
  • Astronomy magazine
  • Discover magazine

Learning Objectives

Your visit will help you address some of the following targets and standards (please keep in mind that it isn't possible to cover all these topics in a one-hour presentation):

Wisconsin Model Academic Content Standards and WKCE Assessment Frameworks

E.12.3 Using the science themes, describe theories of the origins and evolution of the universe and solar system, including the Earth system as a part of the solar system, and relate these theories and their implications to geologic time on Earth.

E.12.5 Using the science themes, understand that the origin of the universe is not completely understood, but that there are current ideas in science that attempt to explain its origin.

MPS Learning Targets

  • Modeling of Earth's geological history
  • Theories about the origins of the universe and solar system
  • Space exploration

Science Concepts

  • Origins of solar system and universe
  • Solar system
  • Universe
  • Celestial phenomena
  • Space exploration

Science Process Skills

  • Questions
  • Hypotheses
  • Observations
  • Experimentation
  • Conclusions
  • Connecting relevance to students' world

Integration Learning Targets

Language Arts

  • Follow oral directions
  • Participate in group discussions
  • Develop appropriate communication skills
  • Write research paper and/or story
  • Vocabulary strategies


  • Use coordinates to specify locations to represent simple figures
  • Parallax -- use of trigonometry
  • Models to scale

Physical Education

  • Demonstrate self-control and the ability to follow directions

Social Studies

  • Identify and compare stories from different cultures
  • History of astronomical theories and space exploration



·Absolute Magnitude


·Apparent Magnitude

·Artificial Satellite


·Asteroid Belt


·Astronomical Unit

·Big Bang Theory

·Black Hole



·Celestial Equator



·Cosmic Background

·Cosmology Day




·Electromagnetic spectrum


·Elliptical Galaxy

·Escape Velocity



·Gas Giants


·Globular Cluster

·H-R Diagram

·International Space Station

·Irregular Galaxy

·Leap Year

·Light Year

·Low Earth Orbit

·Main Sequence








·Neutron Star

·Open Cluster


·Orbital Velocity Parallax

·Period of Revolution



·Prograde Motion





·Red Giant

·Reflecting Telescope

·Refracting Telescope

·Retrograde Motion


·Right Ascension





·Solar System

·Space Junk

·Space Probe

·Space Shuttle

·Spiral Galaxy


·Supernova Telescope

·Terrestrial Planets


·White Dwarf