Earth and Space Science > Activities > Know Your Neighbors--researching the planets

Know Your Neighbors--researching the planets

Kathleen A. Kelly
Hale Middle School
Stow, MA 01775
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This activity benefited from feedback during the development process.

This activity benefited from feedback from peer teachers and instructors during its development and implementation as a part of the Earth and Space Science professional development course. For more information on the process, see

This page first made public: Nov 14, 2010


Utilizing online and traditional resources students will collect data on planets and moons in our solar system. Working collaboratively students will generate a spreadsheet of the data. After verifying one another's information, they will then use the spreadsheet to try and determine ways in which the Earth is unique amongst the objects in our solar system, including, but not limited to, the reasons behind Earth's ability to support life.

Learning Goals

  • Gain an appreciation for the role of collaboration and peer review in the process of science
  • Build new personal knowledge of the solar system based on analysis of data from a variety of sources
  • To become familiar with and utilize the data management and processing capabilities of databases and spreadsheets
  • Gain an appreciation for the value of multiple resources in researching a topic

Context for Use

This activity is designed to meet Massachusetts State Astronomy Standards for middle school student. It is intended as a culminating activity to a study of the Earth-Moon-Sun system.

Before beginning this activity, students will have studied the Earth-Moon-Sun system. They should have an understanding of the roles that the Sun and Moon play relative to physical and biotic systems: stabilizing the axial tilt, tidal effects, seasons, energy source, roles in natural cycles. They should understand that besides having beneficial effects, the Sun is a source of potential dangers in the form of radiation, solar winds and solar storms. Students should have previously studied the Earth's structure and atmosphere. Students should have previously completed an introductory biology course and have a concept of what is meant by the term "life".


Science is a collaborative effort aimed at extending knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It involves posing questions, determining what steps and/or resources are needed to answer the questions, and analysis of the results of the research and experimentation which springs from those questions. One of the natural outcomes of this is the generation of new questions from the answers obtained. The process involves not only collaboration in the research, experimentation and analysis, but also is subject to peer review. All of these elements form the foundation for advancing our knowledge of the world in which we live.

Description and Teaching Materials

In-Class Activities

  1. Know- Think I know- Questions I have: Introduce the activity by stating the idea that conservationists and environmentalists are always telling us that we need to take care of our planet because it is so unique. Ask students for their thoughts regarding this point; in what ways is Earth unique amongst the planets? Lead the discussion, as necessary, to solicit what they would need to know to determine how and if Earth were unique; students should come up with the idea that they would need to know information about the other planets so that they could compare them to Earth. Using large sheets of paper and stations around the room, have kids go around the room and write things they think they know are facts, things they aren't sure are facts and questions they have, about each of the planets. After 5 -10 minutes as a whole class discuss what students have written. Guide a discussion where students state how they know the things they have written as facts and "facts". Discuss and debate any conflicts in information. After discussing the things identified as facts and "facts", ask students what we would need to do to answer their questions; what type of information would we need, where would we get the information, how could we use it. Teacher role is primarily that of facilitator and record keeper for the discussions.
  2. Collaborative spreadsheet: Using the ideas generated at the end of the first activity, have the class collaborate on the construction of a spreadsheet in Google Docs which has fields for each of the different pieces of information that students have determined they will need in order to answer their questions. Establish records for each of the planets and several of the moons, as appropriate. Randomly assign planets/moons to pairs of students and have them research the information needed to complete the table; student pairs should work independently to find information and jointly to verify one another's findings through a second or third source. Provide students with access to essential materials by working in a school library with access to computers and the internet. All students will be working on the document simultaneously; utilizing the IM facility, as appropriate, to "discuss" their work as they progress.
  3. Peer review: Have students present the information they found to their peers, including mention of the sources from which they obtained their final information, difficulties that they had in determining the data, and questions that arose. Provide time for questions from peers and time to recheck any information they felt was questionable.
  4. Analyzing the data: Working independently or in pairs, the students will compare Earth to the other planets and/or moons, recording similarities and/ or any patterns that they might see between the different planets and moons. Students should be encouraged to record any questions that arise as a result of their analysis of the information.
  5. Second Round of Peer review: Have students conference about their research discoveries; sharing, questioning and critiquing.

At Home Assignments

  • Depending on the time constraints under which the class is working step 2 above can be completed at home after having been started at school. Steps 3 and 4 could be assigned as homework dependent on the availability of access that students have at home to computer and the internet.
  • Provide students with reading assignments related to the actual missions from which the information about their assigned planet was obtained. This could be provided as an optional assignment.


  1. Access to....
    • library materials on the planets and moons
    • computers with internet access
    • Google Docs - spreadsheet files


Learning Standard 8.ES 10

Compare and contrast properties and conditions of objects in the solar system (i.e., sun, planets, and moons) to those on Earth (i.e., gravitational force, distance from the sun,
speed, movement, temperature, and atmospheric conditions).

Teaching Notes and Tips

Use Google Apps to allow for real-time collaboration.


  • On-going discussion with individual students and student pairs
  • generation of spreadsheet fields
  • informal student presentations: data choices and results of analyzing the data
  • questions arising from the data analysis
  • peer review and conference discussions
The following are possibilities depending on the interest of the students or individual objectives of the teacher
  • Oral presentation or paper
    • Proposal for future exploration
    • letter to state representative/senator/newspaper in support of space exploration
  • Reflective writing on the process and its outcome in terms of students' personal learning

References and Resources

Planet and Moon Internet Resources