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A high school teaching unit in Astrochemistry

by Wesley Johnson and Roy Riegel

This unit is organized around the question “What is the Universe made of?” Since it deals with such large themes, parts of it can be used in any science class from Biology to Physics.

Outer space is not empty

created under the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program at MIT Haystack Observatory in cooperation with the National Science Foundation.


Astrochemistry: Introduction, Light, Matter & the Atmosphere

Hands-On Activities

The Small Radio Telescope

Haystack's 37 meter Telescope

Teacher's Guide


Astrochemistry WebQuests

To use these lessons, have your students work at computers in small groups. Have them download a Powerpoint file from this website and its companion worksheet. These Powerpoints are designed to be explored by the students themselves, not presented to them by the instructor. Each one is connected to external webpages for students to investigate. Instructors can mix and match individual lessons to create a unit which best fits their class.


Astrochemistry Basics ( worksheet ) – How do scientists study matter from millions of miles away?

Fuzzy Stars ( worksheet ) – What do astronomers look at besides stars?

Radio Telescope Basics – How do Radio Telescopes work?


Reading Spectral Lines ( worksheet ) – What do we learn by reading spectral lines?

Mechanisms of Radio Wave Emission ( worksheet ) – How are radio waves generated?

Masers ( worksheet ) – What are they? How do they work? What do they reveal about different regions of space?


Chemistry Review ( worksheet ) – What types of chemical reactions happen in space?

Nuclear Synthesis ( worksheet ) – Where did all these atoms come from?

Dark Matter ( worksheet ) – What is dark matter and how can scientists study something they can't see?

List of Chemicals in Space – What's out there?


Introduction of the Ionosphere ( worksheet ) – What is the Ionosphere and why is it important?

Auroras ( worksheet ) – What causes the Northern and Southern Lights?

The Ionosphere as Plasma ( worksheet ) – Why does the Ionosphere behave the way it does?

Hands-On Activities

Use these fun activities to liven up your classroom – great for kinesthetic learners.

Energy of Rotation ( data sheet#1)( data sheet#2 ) – How can we measure the energy in a rotating object?

Spinning Tabletop Molecules ( data sheet ) – Do different objects rotate in different ways?

Spinning PVC Molecules – Who said astrochemistry isn't fun?

Radio in a cage – Can radio waves break into a cage?

Umbrella Reflector – What do radio telescopes really do?

The Small Radio Telescope

With this 7 foot dish, high school students become radio astronomers. The SRT is built to look at the Hydrogen in our galaxy and beyond. With it, students can design their own experiments, retrieve quantitative data, and analyze their results. Unlike optical astronomy, experiments with the SRT can be performed during the day – even in poor weather. More information is available at the main SRT page.

Haystack's 37 meter Telescope

Learn More about how to remotely access the 37 meter telescope at MIT's Haystack Observatory and use it in your classroom.

Teacher's Guide

Information on how this unit is aligned with State teaching frameworks and an assessment for the entire unit.

Teacher's Guide Assessment




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