Peering into the Universe

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.

3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes (estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: Big Bang, redshift, cosmic microwave background radiation, universe, fusion, star, supernova, nebula, planetesimal, protoplanet, galaxy, Hubble constant, H-R diagram

Unit Storyline

According to modern astronomical observations and calculations, our universe came into being approximately 13.8 billion years ago with a "big bang." Within an infinitesimal amount of time, space stretched in every direction, expanding within itself, all at once. One second later, masses of unfathomably hot particles formed into hydrogen, and experienced a time of darkness. Finally, between 380,000 and a few million years after the bang, and riding a boost from gravity, hydrogen began to coalesce into the stars and galaxies themselves.

Humans have long looked up at the night sky and pondered the origins of those swirling celestial bodies that make up our universe, an inborn curiosity urging us to reach further and further into the cosmos in our quest for understanding. Scientists are continually trying to find new evidence to support the theories of universe formation, to discover the composition of the very first particles, and to describe the mechanisms behind the evolution of our solar system. By utilizing our most powerful telescopes and modern detection techniques, they gain new insights into stellar life cycles, supernovae and of all of the objects we see in the night's sky.

Developed by theDIG Texas BlueprintsEducation Internsand theCentral Texas Development Team

Students will be able to (do)

  • Evaluate the evidence concerning the Big Bang theory, such as red shift and cosmic microwave background radiation.
  • Examine current theories on the evolution of the universe and age of the universe.
  • Investigate the process by which a supernova can lead to the formation of successive generation stars and planets.
  • Conduct web-based research.
  • Work collaboratively.
  • Communicate findings.

Students will know

  • That multiple lines of evidence, such as red shift and cosmic microwave background radiation, support the Big Bang theory.
  • Current theories on the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe.
  • The process of how our sun and other stars transform matter into energy through nuclear fusion.
  • The process by which supernovae can lead to the formation of successive generations of stars and planets.


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

TEDEd: The Most Astounding Fact - Neil deGrasse Tyson

View Activity

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked in an interview with TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Video

Time Required: 5 minutes

The Cosmic Calendar

View Activity

In this activity, ALL of time, from the beginning of time (i.e., the Big Bang) all the way up to today, is compressed into one year.

Instructional Strategies: Modeling

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 180 minutes

Cool Cosmos: Redshift

View Activity

This website, from NASA's Cool Cosmos: Cosmic Reference Guide, takes students through the concept of red shift/blue shift. Astronomers often use the term redshift when describing how far away a distant object is.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 20 minutes

The Expanding Universe

View Activity

This activity is composed of 5 separate learning activities or labs that are designed to help students gain a deeper understanding of cosmology. Students develop authentic models and gather evidence supporting the Big Bang theory by creating a model of the expanding universe, analyzing and explaining what happens when using different measuring devices, and creating an electronic report of Hubble Space Telescope findings. In summary, this learning experience uses observation, interactive media, and scientific models.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Debate, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 300 minutes

Measuring the Age of the Universe

View Activity

This activity, from Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, has learners using real supernova spectra to create a famous Hubble Diagram.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 120 minutes

Star in a Box

View Activity

The Star in a Box application from the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network lets students explore the life cycle of stars. It animates stars with different starting masses as they change during their lives and visualizes the changes in mass, size, brightness and temperature for all these different stages.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 90 minutes

Investigating Supernova Remnants

View Activity

This activity from NASA/CXC/SAO uses Chandra data to investigate several supernova remnants in order to determine if the supernova was a Type II core collapse or a Type Ia thermonuclear event. There are two versions of this activity; a pencil and paper version, and a version that uses the Chandra ds9 image analysis software.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 80 minutes

The Strange Attraction of Hot Jupiters

View Activity

This video gives a brief history of satellites and the hunt for exoplanets, specifically hot Jupiters throughout the universe. Some of the questions that are addressed are what causes these planets to run hot, the impact of these planets on further planetary discoveries and the interactions of these planets with their home suns.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Video

Time Required: 5 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. In the case of space exploration, teachers may be able to organize visits to a local science center, museum, college or university with planetarium and/or observatory facilities. Teachers can check with their own school district to see if they have access to a travelling planetarium.

Virtual Field Trip

Supernova Explosion

This animation of a supernova explosion demonstrates what happens when a massive star explodes and creates a shell of hot gas that glows brightly in X-rays. These X-rays reveal the dynamics of the explosion.

Actual Field Trips

The University of Texas McDonald Observatory offers educational twilight programs and daily tours of its research telescopes.

Space Center Houston offers a variety of education programs and hosts school visits.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit. The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.


In TED-Ed's The Most Astounding Fact, American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shares his answer to the question, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" His answer is that the atoms all around and within us are traceable to crucibles that "cooked" light elements into heavier elements under extreme pressure in the cores of stars. This short video serves as an excellent lead-in to the unit, and encourages students to think about the interconnected nature of the universe.

The Cosmic Calendar helps learners grasp the history of the universe, from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago through the development of the various structures in the cosmos and on to the present. Students engage in dimensional analysis. The amount of time allocated for this activity depends in part on how much work teachers want students to do in figuring out which events to include, exactly when they should take place on the Cosmic Calendar, and how they should be displayed. This activity can also be utilized as a group or independent project. Some of the steps may be assigned as out-of-class work.

NASA's Cool Cosmos: Redshift is a short article that explains the concept of redshift and blueshift, terms astronomers use when describing whether distant celestial objects are moving toward or away from Earth. The article also has links to review other related concepts, such as the electromagnetic spectrum and absorption and emission lines.

The Expanding Universe has links to myths and legends about the origin and evolution of our universe. Teachers will need to preview the activities as there are additional materials necessary for the activities. It is also necessary to review the units of measurement for distance used in cosmology.

Measuring the Age of the Universe requires computer and internet access to retrieve spectral data from a web archive which is then used to derive Doppler shifts for different Type 1a supernovae. Students will also need access to spreadsheet software for calculations and generation of graphs. Detailed instructions are included for the teacher and student. It is important that the teacher work through the activity prior to implementation to determine pacing and develop a thorough understanding of the activity. This activity is excellent for using real data to determine Hubble's Law. Before beginning this activity, we recommend that the teacher check for the updated Hubble's constant value at NASA's Universe 101.

*The animation video from Kurzgesagt, The Beginning of Everything - The Big Bang gives a timeline of the Big Bang and the order of particle formation associated with the birth of the Universe. A second animated video, Cosmic Inflation Exlained, from PhD Comics discusses "BICEP2" and the Cosmic Inflation theory.

The Star in a Box activity consists of two parts: an introductory multimedia presentation that discusses the life cycle of stars, and an interactive browser application that allows students to view a star's Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, in which a star's luminosity is plotted against its temperature. The information panels then allow students to compare our Sun's relative radius, surface temperature, brightness (luminosity) and mass to that of stars with the masses of their choice.

*The Star Life interactive consists of two parts; one part discusses life cycle of stars, while the other discusses the H-R Diagram and utilizes exercises to practice its interpretation. It includes multiple opportunities for formative assessment. Teachers will need to provide an overview of nucleosynthesis and may need to review the definitions of fusion and isotope.

Stephen Hawking's Stellar Factories video is a great hook for helping students to understand how supernovae yield the elements that form all that we know, including life. This video is a good way to introduce the concepts in the Investigating Supernova Remnants activity.

Investigating Supernova Remnants is a product of NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The website includes links to background information for both the student and teacher and download instructions for the free software, should teachers choose to utilize this version of the activity. There are also additional extension activities for use with the software. The teacher needs to be familiar with all instructions and have worked through using the software prior to use in the classroom. The paper and pencil version of the activity is an excellent alternative when technology or time constraints prohibit the download and review of the software.

The Strange Attraction of Hot Jupiters is a video that gives a brief history of satellites and the hunt for exoplanets, specifically hot Jupiters throughout the universe. Teachers may wish to discuss with their students some of the questions addressed in the video, such as what causes these planets to run hot, the impact of these planets on further planetary discoveries, and the interactions of these planets with their home suns. The transcript page for this activity is at NASA's Science News webpage, The Strange Attraction of Hot Jupiters. The YouTube link can also be found on this page.

*The PhD Comic's animation video, There are Billions of Planets in Our Galaxy, discusses the techniques used for discovery exoplanets. Additionally, Detecting ExtraSolar Planets from the Astronomy Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln website contains information about exoplanet detection and an interactive simulation that allows one to see the effects of the gravitational effects that the planets have on the sun looking down on the plane of the solar system.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

HS-ESS1-1: Develop a model based on evidence to illustrate the life span of the sun and the role of nuclear fusion in the sun's core to release energy in the form of radiation.

HS-ESS1-2: Construct an explanation of the Big Bang Theory based on astronomical evidence of light spectra, motion of distant galaxies, and composition of matter in the universe.

HS-ESS1-3:Communicate scientific ideas about the way stars, over their life cycle, produce elements.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table NGSS Congruence: Peering into the Universe (Acrobat (PDF) 82kB Jul28 15).

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

Cambridge Cosmology is a collection of notes, photographs and links covering various topics on the Universe maintained by the University of Cambridge.

McDonald Observatory Website is the main page link.

Music Theme: Fly Me to the Moon

Live units may have permissions pending and are subject to revision.