The Universe in the Classroom

An Ancient Universe: How Astronomers Know the Vast Scale of Cosmic Time

Appendix Two
Activities for Teaching about the Age of the Universe and Its Contents

Below are a few activities that you can do with your students to show them how science works and how we have come to know about the age and evolution of the universe.

At the beginning of any discussion of the age and origin of the universe, it is helpful to have the students, working in small groups, discuss and write down their views on questions such as (a) How do you think the Universe began? (b) Where did you get this understanding? (c) Of the answers which your classmates gave for question (a), which do you think is the most correct? Why? This activity can be repeated at the end of the topic.

* Cosmic Calendar:
Students learn to scale the history of the universe since the Big Bang to a one-year calendar, noting where significant events (such as the formation of the Earth or the rise of humans) would fall in that year.

* Toilet Paper Geologic Time Scale:
This activity uses a roll of toilet paper to measure out the 4.6-billion year time span since the Earth formed to scale. Includes a list of major events in biology and geology over that span.

* Exploring Mars: Old, Relatively:
Students examine an image of part of the Mariner Valley complex on Mars with craters and landslides, to see which features formed in what order. (A similar activity using an image with outflow channels and craters is found at:

* Hubble Deep Field Academy:
Students work with real images from the "Hubble Deep Field" - a long exposure view of the most distant galaxies - as they learn about galaxy classification and estimating galaxy distances. (Good use of real data!) Some of the "too-cute" web features may discourage older students, but hard-copy versions are available and can be down-loaded.

* The Expanding Universe:
An activity on Hubble's Law, which describes the expansion of the universe. Students measure the separation of dots on an expanding balloon and derive the relationship. Involves learning about cepheid variable stars and cosmic distance measurement.

* Direct Hit at the K-T Boundary in Exploring Meteorite Mysteries: Students search for evidence for an impact 65 million years ago that may have killed the dinosaurs (and as many as half of all species living on Earth) and study how such an impact might have affected global climate.

For more activities like this, see two collections of hands-on astronomy activities published by the non-profit Astronomical Society of the Pacific:

You can call 1-800-335-2624 to order these books.

For a much longer list of good astronomy activities on the Web, see:


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An Ancient Universe - Table of Contents

Home | Introduction | The Universe: An Overview | The Process of Science | The Ancient Universe - The Age of the Expanding Universe - The Age of the Oldest Stars - The Age of Light From Distant Galaxies - The Age of the Chemical Elements | The Changing Universe - Changes in the Solar System - Changes in Stars - Changes in the Universe | Science and Religion | Resource Guide | Activities

© Copyright 2001, American Astronomical Society. Permission to reproduce in its entirety for any non-profit, educational purpose is hereby granted. For all other uses contact the publisher: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Ave., San Francisco, CA 94112.

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