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Staying Cool

MESSENGER LogoStaying CoolNASA’s MESSENGER Spacecraft Mission to Mercury includes education programs delivered by organizations nationally.  The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education oversees a number of these programs, including: 1) the development of middle and high school components for grade pre-K-12 MESSENGER Education Modules—each a theme-based compendium of inquiry-based lessons on Solar System science and exploration (the Carnegie Institution of Washington is responsible for the grades pre-K-4 component); 2) delivery of Solar System content through community initiatives such as Journey through the Universe, and 3) the creation, training, and support of a cadre of master science educators—the MESSENGER Educator Fellows—which in turn train 3,000 teachers a year on the Modules, corresponding to 27,000 teachers trained over the mission lifetime (through 2012), and translating into experiences for over 1 million students.

Staying Cool Education Module Overview

The MESSENGER Education Module Staying Cool focuses on the process of scientific inquiry as applied to engineering problems in planetary exploration.  The lessons specifically address the extreme conditions of the space environment, the problems these conditions pose for spacecraft, and the engineering solutions to these problems.  Lessons explore how MESSENGER—or any other spacecraft—can use sunlight and other forms of radiation to meet the scientific goals of the mission, while still protecting the instruments and other sensitive parts of the spacecraft from too much sunlight and radiation.

Staying Cool went through NASA peer review in 2004 and received an ‘outstanding’ grade for both scientific content and pedagogy.  Staying Cool was developed in collaboration with the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The MESSENGER Education Module Staying Cool includes an Education Unit at three grade levels: elementary (pre-K–4); middle (5–8); and high school (9–12).  Each Unit contains lessons comprised of content overviews, inquiry-based hands-on activities, assessment rubrics, resource listings, student worksheet masters, and answer keys.

The lessons were developed from the ground up from national science education standards and benchmarks.  Lessons target core standards and benchmarks through inquiry-based, hands-on activities whose objective is deep conceptual understanding of both content and process.


Below are PDF files providing the storyline, lesson descriptions, and linkages to national standards for the Staying Cool Modules’ three grade-level Units.

Staying Cool Grade preK-4 Education Unit (PDF, 340 KB)

Staying Cool Grade 5-8 Education Unit (PDF, 330 KB)

Staying Cool Grade 9-12 Education Unit (PDF, 330 KB)

Sample Lessons

Grade preK-4 Unit, Lesson 1 (for grades 2-4): Sensing Energy (PDF, 144 KB) 
Students detect the unseen energy in UV light coming from the Sun, discuss why such light is harmful, and experimentally determine how we might protect ourselves.

Activity: Using ‘UV beads’, which sense ultraviolet light by changing color, students detect UV light coming from the Sun.  Students first test a number of light sources, such as fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, but find that it is the Sun that produces an obvious color change.  A class discussion explores key concepts, including: forms of light that cannot be seen, that all light contains energy, and that the energy in ultraviolet light from the Sun poses a danger to us.  Students then use the UV beads to develop methods to block UV light, and afford us protection.

Grade 5-8 Unit, Lesson 1: Sensing the Invisible—The Herschel Experiment (PDF, 430 KB)
Students reproduce William Herschel’s experiment of 1800 and find out that there is radiation other than visible light arriving from the Sun—in this case, they discover the presence of infrared radiation in sunlight.  Students learn that since planets emit most of their light as infrared and not as visible light, infrared is an important tool in studying planets.  Students also discuss current uses of infrared radiation and learn that it is both very beneficial and a major concern for the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

Activity: The students will create a device in which sunlight will pass through a prism and produce a spectrum of light on the bottom of a cardboard box.  Using a series of thermometers, the students will measure temperatures at various locations within, and outside of, the spectrum. By doing so, the students discover the existence of radiation beyond the spectrum of visible light.

Grade 9-12 Unit, Lesson 1: Star Power! Discovering the Power of Sunlight (PDF, 728 KB)
Students estimate the energy output of the Sun using a simple device and discover how much power sunlight provides to Earth.  They also estimate what the effect closer to the Sun—at the distance of Mercury—might be. Sunlight and the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum are the main tools with which we study objects in the Solar System.

Activity: Students will measure the temperature change in a bottle of water as it is exposed to sunlight.  Using this data and other parameters of the experiment, they calculate the solar constant, which is the amount of energy the Earth receives from the Sun per square meter per second.

©2008, National Center for Earth and Space Science Education