Pluto Flyby: Science in the News!!!

Greetings, everyone!

In my experience, it is wonderful when a scientific expedition is featured in the daily news. This provides rich starting points for skill development in adult education programs, as well as for learning about specific science topics.  Instructors are given the opportunity to include investigations using skills in reading, writing, critical thinking, research, and numeracy. 

Such is the case of the exciting Pluto Flyby!!!  The Pluto Flyby is a NASA project, so we can count on many educational resources being available. Such is the case here:  Look for charts, graphs, data sets, and incredible photos.  Look for lesson plans at and check out the Design and Build section at  An example of a great lesson is "Pluto Time" at

Along with all the opportunities to investigate topics in astronomy and math by looking at data from the New Horizons spacecraft, there are other ways in which to blend skill development in instruction.  Here are a few of the things that come to mind:

Where do the names “Pluto” and “Charon” (Pluto’s moon) come from?  How about the informal names that scientists are giving to features on Pluto that are being seen for the first time? (According to the New York Times, these include entities from culturally diverse myths and literature: Cthulhu, Meng-Po, Balrog, Vucub Came, and Hun Came.) What do these entities have in common?

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in 2006.  Students could make a timeline of events between 2006 and 2015.  These could be national, international, and personal events.  A rich discussion could follow as these timelines are compared.

The New Horizon is described as being “the size of a baby grand piano”.  What are some other ways to describe the size of the spacecraft?

I’ve read that the spacecraft has flown 3 billion miles so far.  How does that number compare to the number of people on Earth?  Actually, astronomers use the AU, or astronomical unit, to measure distances in space.  How big is an AU?

And my personal favorite for a writing topic would be to read and respond to this comment by Deborah Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations manager.    During a news conference, she said:  “We always talk about the spacecraft as being a child, maybe a teenager.  There was absolutely nothing anybody on the operations team could do, just to trust that we had prepared it well to set off on its journey on its own”. 

Please contribute other things you think about in using the Pluto Flyby as a topic for explorations and skill development!



Susan, thanks so much for posting this great resources and wonderful ideas for critical thinking, reading, and writing on an engaging topic! I know that folks, especially in the Reading and Writing CoP will have additional ideas to enrich this topic! Here's one from me:

Since the reading level for some of the passages might challenge lower-level readers, how about having better readers in programs either summarize or paraphrase content for developing readers? I call it a win-win proposition! Leecy

Leecy Wise


Leecy, this is a great idea!  You are certainly correct in saying that many science-related reading passages are quite challenging, so your suggestion helps to solve that problem.  During that exercise, students might also find they have developed a list of vocabulary words that are important to the basic understanding of the news.

In a project of this scope and dimension, it is so hard to really grasp what is going on.  That's one reason I suggested making a timeline showing the events between the time the New Horizons was launched and then arrived at its goal.  And it is all the better if I think about personal events that are important to me.  For example, I would say, "In that time, all four of my grandchildren were born, and two of them are now attending elementary school".  Now I really can picture how long it took the spacecraft to reach Pluto, and how many things can take place during that period of time.  

I look forward to reading additional comments from members of the Reading/Writing CoP!

Cheers, Susan

My apologies to the Mission Operations Manager for the New Horizons expedition to Pluto and beyond.  Her name is Alice Bowman.

There is an additional resource to add to investigations about this expedition.  WGBH/NOVA has aired an excellent program, "Chasing Pluto".  Find out more at  Learn what roller derby has to do with space exploration; find out who discovered Pluto (formerly known as "Planet X") and how he did it;  join the debate about whether or not Pluto should still be considered to be a planet. We also see the excitement of the team of scientists who have been waiting for this flyby for the nine and one-half years since the launch of New Horizons.  We learn more about this history of science and the processes of scientific discovery.  The graphics are great.

Has anyone checked YouTube for more videos about this incredible voyage?




This short article is not so much about Pluto; it's about two different ways to think about science, and about teaching it. As a teacher of science you may find this interesting yourself, and perhaps it will be useful reading for your students. The second page of the article, in which the author contrasts how John and Juanita approach science, could be especially useful both to science teachers and students. The second page of the article is at

I would be interested to hear what you think about the article.

David J. Rosen


David, I found the article so interesting that I had to read it in its entirety! Thanks for sharing.

Here’s what stood out to me:

  1. Students and graduates would be better problem solvers and thus be more apt to keep a job (and advance in their careers) if they applied the scientific process in various areas of their lives.
  2. The “scientific method” – the process of doing science – is too often taught “about” – instead of “with” – so that students can explain it on a standardized test.
  3. Yet students learn science best by actively doing science, thinking critically, problem-solving, and creating new knowledge.
  4. Educational Technology is making active learning in science possible and more widely available.
  5. How do teachers -- who may not be trained as scientists – become more comfortable and competent in teaching science by doing science with their students?

The authors write that with the advent of the Internet, scientists are no longer the only ones who need to apply the scientific process. They argue that we all need to be critical consumers of information and learn how to create new knowledge. So how do we become active explorers in the “information age” when facts are at our fingertips?

Through active learning of science, the process itself becomes a life skill that students can use in other areas of their lives, including being effective problem-solvers on the job. “A wealth of research shows that active learning, whereby science is taught through the process of problem-solving, is far more effective than traditional teaching, and a movement in this direction is gaining ground one classroom and lecture hall at a time.”

I wonder what others are doing in the classroom to make science more of an active learning experience?

Please share!

Jackie Taylor

“Science is just the relentless application of common sense.”  ~ Ariel D. Anbar and Dror Ben-Naim

Dear Colleagues:

With all the excitement about Pluto, I was wondering if others are using planetarium apps in their classroom, applications like Star Chart.  The basic version of Star Chart is free and available for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices (download from appstores). The apps provide an interactive map of the cosmos and use the GPS and compass in your phone/pad to pinpoint your location and show you where all the surrounding celestial bodies are, even if your view is blocked. Most of the planetarium apps don't even need an Internet connection to function so you can take them to class.  Very cool.

And, there is always the live and direct approach -- binoculars.  Here is a brief article from EarthSky on using binoculars for stargazing.  The website includes a section titled, Tonight, that provides a highlight of what you can see this evening (typically bright features that can be seen despite light pollution).  So, go virtual or actual and channel your inner geek this evening.