Peering into the Universe

Initial Publication Date: August 5, 2015

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


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.

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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

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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

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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

The Expanding Universe

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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

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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

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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

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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.


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.


Next Generation Science Standards

Additional Resources

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