K–12 STEM Lesson Plans

At Haystack, researchers use several basic science concepts every day. Electromagnetic waves, optics, and molecular chemistry are just a few of the core topics that can be incorporated into the high school science curriculum by exploring the atmosphere and the universe with lessons focused around the research specialties at Haystack.

The original material presented here was developed by teachers, with the assistance of the staff at MIT/Haystack. All lesson plans have been successfully used in high school classrooms. These lessons have been prepared with specific attention to the goals and objectives of current science curricula. The object is to create lessons that will enhance your class, not require you to add substantial material.

The development of these educational materials at the Haystack Observatory was funded by the National Science Foundation under the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program.

Lesson Plans

Drones and Software-Defined Radio

The focus in these lessons is on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and software-defined radios (SDRs), so we have developed a curriculum in two parts: one using UAVs, targeting kinematics, and the other using SDRs, targeting the electromagnetic spectrum (as well as a brief summary of wave properties). Additionally, we have included an optional capstone project, which integrates both the UAVs and the SDRs, but may not be appropriate for every classroom or curriculum.

The Cryosphere: On Thin Ice

Cryosphere lesson plans:
Unit 1: What the cryosphere is
Unit 2: How we study the cryosphere
Unit 3: Why we study the cryosphere

Geodesy: The Earth Isn’t Flat (but it isn’t round, either)

While these lessons can be taught as a unit for astronomy or earth science classes, their primary purpose is to function as interjection lessons for a physics class. Physics teachers may choose which labs, activities, and discussions are most useful for the instruction and enrichment of standard physical principles and employ them without disrupting their overall curriculum or objectives. Therefore, these lessons are organized by physical principles—such as kinematics or forces—with the aim of enriching a physics curriculum.

In this study of geodesy, students begin by exploring the problem of defining a universal time system and a stationary spatial reference frame in the dynamic conditions of an ever-expanding universe, followed by a review of data gathering techniques. The next layer is a set of discussions, labs, and activities centered on three geodetic techniques: very long baseline interferometry, GPS, and satellite laser ranging. Students will explore these techniques by using a simple acoustic interferometer and other simplified methods to deduce their fundamental physical principles which will be conceptually applied to geodesy. Afterwards, students will explore some of the applications of geodesy such as measuring tectonic plate motion and post-glacial rebound, and using VLBI for interstellar travel.

Information in Radio Waves

Importance: As modern technology becomes more and more advanced, the underlying principles of how something works can often become easily overlooked. Radio waves are a perfect example of this. Almost all of your students nowadays are going to have a cell phone or other handheld devices on them. Same can be said about a television in their respective households or the wireless internet their computer, phone, or even TV rely on. Each of these devices are going to vary in their complexity and functionality, but unbeknownst to them, they all boil down to the same concept. Radio waves and the information it carries!

Bringing Black Holes into the Classroom

Post-Newtonian contributions to science, such as relativity, have been transformational. They have impacted every branch of science and the technology that shapes our daily lives. However, many high schools do not expose students to modern astronomy or post-Newtonian physics concepts. This unit contains two sets of curriculum modules designed for use in high school physics and astronomy classes.

Climate C.H.A.N.G.E.: Concepts Having Anthropogenic & Natural Global Evidence – YOU DECIDE

This unit provides lessons regarding how the Earth’s atmosphere responds to environmental changes in ways which differ markedly depending on the location, altitude, and time period of observation.

This unit will enhance student ability to critically analyze and interpret data. The goal of this teaching unit is for high school students to see that climate change is occurring at all levels of the atmosphere and for them to come to an independent decision on the cause of the change.

A Physics MOSAIC: Scientific Skills and Explorations for Students

This unit includes an introductory unit on measurement, uncertainty, and data analysis.

The goal is to teach students how science is done, they learn skills that will serve them well whether they continue their studies of science or not. The opportunity to do research on the atmosphere provides increased engagement in the classroom, and students have an authentic experience of asking and answering scientific questions when the answer cannot simply be Googled.

Meet Me in the Mesosphere: Investigation of Atmospheric Processes for Classroom Studies

This unit introduces the Mesospheric Ozone System for Atmospheric Investigations in the Classroom (MOSAIC) system. Background is provided on the hardware, signal reception, and Graphical User Interface (GUI) through which students may access a network of installed MOSAIC instruments. This can provide students with an authentic scientific inquiry.

Students and teachers will find materials suitable for investigations in Earth Science, Chemistry, or Environmental Science. Topics covered: Atmospheric Layers, the Greenhouse Effect, Earth’s Energy Balance, Ozone Creation, and Noctilucent clouds.

This unit also explores the Physics principles connected to an instrument such as MOSAIC. Topics included are: Heat Transfer, Heat and Temperature, the Laws of Thermodynamics, Radio Waves, and Fluid Mechanics. Demonstrations and lab exercises are provided.

Versatile System for learning about Radio Telescopes

This unit brings the exploration of radio waves into the classroom through the use of the Very Small Radio Telescope (VSRT). The VSRT system can be assembled by the user from commercially available parts for less than $500.

The unit consists of various activities and experiments that are appropriate in varying degrees for grades 8-12. These hands-on, inquiry–based activities are an excellent introduction to the concept on invisible electromagnetic radiation.

These materials are appropriate for physics classes by experimenting with the transmission, absorption, propagation, polarization and interference of radio waves (not visible light) emitted by a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).

Use in a general science classroom would include comparing the transmission of light and radio waves through various materials as well as learning about the polarization of both visible light sources and radio waves from a CFL.

Caught in the Solar Wind

Humans in the 21st century are relying more and more on technology that has the potential to be disrupted by the sun’s influence on Earth’s ionosphere. Space weather is a concept that is becoming more familiar to the general public and will be in the spotlight as we approach the next solar maximum.

The goal of this teaching unit is to educate students about the source, mechanisms and impacts of space weather.

The unit contains a variety of activities that can be used with students from middle school through high school. The activities are designed to fit together as a cohesive package, but can also stand alone for teachers to select as they choose for their classes.

Demystifying Scientific Data

Introduces high school students and their instructors to one of the vital aspects of science: the essential skills of data analysis and interpretation. Units based on the scientific research in radio astronomy, geodesy, and space weather. Leads to understanding a critical process of science: transforming raw data into explanatory theories. Appropriate for grades 8-12.

Waves in Motion

The unit consists of a series of interlocking lectures, activities, and investigations that can be used as stand alone units to supplement a teacher’s existing curriculum, as an independent investigation for a student, or as long exploration into radio astronomy with a theme of waves in space: how and where they carry their information.

Specifically students will comprehend the role radio waves play in our daily lives and in the investigation of the universe. Special emphasis is given to the Relativity theories in honor of the “World Year of Physics” to celebrate Einstein’s 1905 contributions. This unit is appropriate for grades 9-12 and concentrates on the fields of Physics and Astronomy.

Outer Space Is Not Empty Space

A teaching unit in AstroChemistry organized around the question “What is the Universe made of?” The unit deals with large themes that can be used in any science class from Biology to Chemistry to Physics. Includes WebQuests on Light, Matter and the Atmosphere, worksheets, hands-on activities, and instructions for using the Small Radio Telescope in the classroom. Lessons appropriate for grades 8-12.

Small Radio Telescope (SRT) Projects

If you have access to a Small Radio Telescope, this page contains a series of introductory lessons using the SRT for the high school classroom. Further descriptions of some of the activities and projects can be found on the main SRT projects page. The page also contains general information about our SRT program, including how you can obtain one of your own. These lessons are appropriate for grades 10-12.

Space Weather

This tutorial walks the student through a pre/post test with questions about space weather, aurora and other sun/earth phenomena. The answer links within the tests link to pages containing descriptions about the various topics.

AM Radio Lesson Plan

This lesson asks the question, “Why can you hear AM Radio better at night than during the day?” The one-week investigation goes on to explore basic wave principles (wavelength, frequency, and speed) and how electromagnetic waves interact with the Earth’s ionosphere. Space Weather and the Aurora are also examined. The use of the Millstone Radar to probe the atmosphere is also discussed. This lesson is appropriate for grades 9-12.

Solar and Geomagnetic Investigations

This six-week program explores the Sun-Earth connection and combines on-line data collection with the use of the Small Radio Telescope in an extensive introduction to electromagnetic waves, activities on the Sun, and their effects that are felt here on Earth. Go to Frameworks for a detailed explanation of how this lesson will conform to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. This lesson is appropriate for grades 8-12.


One of the key principles in radio astronomy is the resolution of ones measurements. These lessons present the concept of resolution as it applies to radio astronomy. Interference patterns and Spectroscopy are also discussed. This lesson includes a teachers guide. This lesson is appropriate for grades 10-12.

Radio Frequency Interference (RFI)

An introductory unit on radio frequency interference for the high school classroom that helps students understand the concepts behind electromagnetic radiation, matter and energy in the Earth system and beyond, and wavelength vs. frequency. This unit is appropriate for students in grades 9-12.


Links explaining how GPS works and a lesson plan that explores the operations of GPS units and their relationship to work that is being performed at Haystack.