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Observing The SkyObserving-The-Sky

  • Subject: Ancient Civilizations
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  • Grade(s): 6-8
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  • Duration: Two class periods to set students up for an ongoing project

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Ancient people showed significant skills in developing calendars based on celestial movements.
2. Contemporary people all over the world continue to be fascinated with astronomy.


Access to local observatories and astronomical equipment would be helpful but is not necessary for this observation-and-recording project.
Internet access and e-mail account for teacher or class


1. To help students appreciate the skills of the ancient Anasazi people of the Southwest in watching the stars and simultaneously to highlight the benefits of up-to-date electronic communication, organize a cooperative sky-gazing project with teachers and students in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world. This project should not depend on telescopes or other high-tech paraphernalia. Your first step is to locate teachers and classes willing to participate with you in an astronomy project over the course of a few months. Find Internet discussion groups and clubs dedicated to astronomy and e-mail addresses of astronomy associations by selecting hyperlinks at
2. Announce to those groups and clubs your interest in having your students use listservs and e-mail to communicate with other students their age on a regular basis to compare what they see where and when in the night sky at their respective latitudes and longitudes.
3. When you get responses of interest from teachers elsewhere, work with them to determine exactly what kinds of records all the students will keep and the frequency with which they will report back and forth electronically. For example, you may want students to note positions of stars and constellations at a given hour to maintain maps and other records of differences and similarities in the night sky on a global scale. Of course, the differences will be most impressive if you and your students in the northern hemisphere get to work with a teacher and class in the southern hemisphere or vice versa.
4. If it turns out that you get expressions of interest in this project only from teachers and students who are not speakers of English, see if you can enlist your school's foreign language teachers and students as translators of computer messages.
5. Work with the other teacher to develop a culminating activity for students. The goal should be to devise a means for students to synthesize the data they collect and evaluate the experience they have had as skywatchers for an extended period.
6. Try to get print, broadcast, or electronic coverage of the project so that the larger community can appreciate students practicing an ancient skill—skygazing—with the help of 21st century communication tools.

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Adaptations for Older Students:
Challenge students to go beyond making personal observations of stars in their own time and place by suggesting they work with computer programs to see what the Anasazi saw in the night sky in A.D. 1000. To do so, your students will have to access Skyglobe (a DOS program for IBM-compatible computers) and SkyMap at Then direct students to report on how similar or different was what the Anasazi saw compared to what they themselves can see by looking upward now.

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Discussion Questions

1. In both ancient and modern societies, the method of stargazing has had an influence on the form and function of the buildings each society constructed. In your view, what is the relationship between astronomy and architecture?
2. In modern society, there is a "wall of separation" between religion and science. For most scientists, religion has no place in science because elements of faith cannot be proven, a requirement of the scientific process. How does this approach differ from that of the ancient sky watching peoples? What was the role of religion in the practices of stargazing and calendar making for the Anasazi and other Native American peoples?
3. How has the scientific method been applied to the study of the Anasazi and their use of astronomy? Do you feel that there was enough evidence to support the theory that the Anasazi knew how to predict lunar eclipses?
4. What evidence is there that the Native American peoples of the American Southwest are the descendants of the ancient Anasazi? What can we learn from the Native American peoples of today about astronomy?
5. Why do you think there is no separate word in the ancient Pueblo languages for art, architecture, astronomy and religion?
6. What might the Anasazi have thought about societies of their own past and of the future based on what they knew about the stars, the planets, and the moon?
7. Why is our modern science of astronomy so much more associated with the future than with astronomers of the past such as those of the Anasazi and Mayan civilizations?

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You can evaluate your students on their participation in the project using the three-point rubric:
  • Three points: clearly noted star sightings on a regular basis; many contributions to e-mail communication with other classes; for 9-12 students, highly articulate comparison-contrast with Anasazi sightings as observed with software
  • Two points: reports of star sightings on an occasional basis; some contributions to e-mail communication with other classes; for 9-12 students, moderately articulate comparison-contrast with Anasazi sightings as observed with software
  • One point: few reports of star sightings; insufficient contributions to e-mail communication with other classes; for 9-12 students, weak comparison-contrast with Anasazi sightings as observed with software

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Timeline of Astronomical History
Instruct students to research the developments made by astronomers from various cultures and to document their findings on a timeline. The timeline should have four or more strands—including Native American developments, Arabic developments, European developments, and Chinese developments. Suggest students annotate the timeline with their own artwork and copies of photos in print resources. In addition or instead, students might annotate the timeline with images printed from Internet astronomy sites. If students are familiar with HTML, they may design an interactive timeline so that a viewer may click on an event in astronomical history and be linked with a detailed description or simulation of the event.

Time Capsule
The Anasazi left us a legacy of their astronomical accomplishments by way of their architecture. In turn, those who come after 21st century humans will learn about our astronomical accomplishments through the artifacts we leave them. List five objects that will tell the inhabitants of Earth in the year 3000 what we knew about the universe in the year 2000. Then bring to class a picture, a written description, or a symbol of contemporary human exploration of the cosmos. Explain to your classmates what the item you bring will tell future generations about us and our science.

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Suggested Readings

How the Shaman Stole the Moon: In Search of Ancient Prophet-Scientists: From Stonehenge to the Grand Canyon
William H. Calvin, Bantam Books, 1991
Across the ages and across the earth, people have looked to the sky for revelations of personal and scientific meaning. Prehistoric astronomy is the focus of this work, replete with illustrations and maps.

Among the Ancients
Jim Robbins, Audubon, January 1996
Ancient Anasazis lived in what is now the Four Corners area of the Colorado plateau. Read about the relics found there as well as the canyons themselves.

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Anasazi: The Ancient Ones
This site includes pictures of Anasazi artifacts. "Our only clues to their existence are what they left behind - homes deserted, desert walls etched with their symbols and art and the leftover things they used in their daily lives. 

Mayan Civilization
This website discusses the advances made by the Mayan people in the area of astronomical calculations. It contains numerous links and graphics that illustrate the advanced level of the Mayan astronomers.

The Chaco Canyon National Monument
This site includes a 3-D web tour of the Great Chaco kiva and graphics depicting Pueblo Bonito. Highly recommended for giving students a more detailed understanding of the program's content.

Native American Lore Index Page
Take the time to read, print and share with your students the many Native American stories of origins of worldly things found at this website.

The Story Of Stars
The latest images from the Hubble Telescope are used to test your knowledge of modern cosmology with this step by step quiz and virtual reality tour of the lives of stars.

Eyes On The Sky - Feet On The Ground
Harvard University provides this "Hands On Astronomy Activities For Kids" curricular website using methods of inquiry to help students learn how to theorize, experiment, and analyze astronomical data.

Welcome to Skyview (SkyView Non-Astronomer Form v3.0)
NASA has created a virtual observatory for the modern Sky Watcher to view any object in the Universe.

The Astronomy Cafe
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be an astronomer, write a research paper and to go observing? You've come to the right place!

Earth & Sky Radio Series
Web site for the award-winning daily science radio series Earth & Sky hosted by Deborah Byrd and Joel Block, who discuss popular science subjects that affect our everyday lives.

University Museum

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    Anasazi
Definition: A Native American people of southwestern North America who developed a highly skilled astronomical science over 500 years before the arrival of the Europeans.
Context: The Navaho people called them the Anasazi, "the ancient ones."

speaker    archeoastronomer
Definition: A type of historian who studies the role astronomy played in the development of ancient societies.
Context: Ray Williamson is an archeoastronomer. He unravels the remnants of ancient cultures, trying to understand how we humans, as prehistoric people, viewed the sky.

speaker    summer solstice
Definition: June 21, the longest day of the year, where the sun reaches its highest point in the sky as the Earth completes its orbit around the sun.
Context: Today, on June 21, the longest day of the year, the sun again snakes through the silence of the cavern, slithers though the center of the rings, and marks the summer solstice as it has done for the last one thousand years.

speaker    pictograph
Definition: A symbol in the form of a picture that carries a message or meaning to the people who designed it.
Context: As the sun engulfs another pictograph, Williamson believes he has found further evidence of ancient sky watching.

speaker    winter solstice
Definition: The shortest day of the year, falling on December 21, where the sun appears lowest in the sky as earth completes its orbit around the sun.
Context: I am here in what I call the "calendar room," because it contains alignments to the summer solstice sunset, the winter solstice sunset and the equinox sunsets.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: world history
Understands the expansion of states and civilizations in the Americas between 1000 and 1500.
Understands cultural and economic elements of North American and Mesoamerican civilizations (e.g., the major characteristics of Toltecs, Anasazi, Pueblo, and North American mound-building peoples; patterns of long-distance trade centered in Mesoamerica).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: world history
Understands the expansion of states and civilizations in the Americas between 1000 and 1500.
Knows the technology (e.g., engineering of roads, bridges, irrigation systems) and urbanism of the Incas (in Cuzco), the Aztecs (in Tenochtitlan), and of North American mound builders.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: technology
Understands the nature of scientific knowledge.
Knows that from time to time, major shifts occur in the scientific view of how the world works, but usually the changes that take place in the body of scientific knowledge are small modifications of prior knowledge; change and continuity are persistent features of science.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: technology
Understands the nature of scientific knowledge.
Knows that in science, the testing, revising and occasional discarding of theories, new and old, never ends; this ongoing process leads to an increasingly better understanding of how things work in the world, but not to absolute truth.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: technology
Understands the interactions of science, technology and society.
Knows that scientific knowledge and the procedures used by scientists influence the way many individuals in society think about themselves, others and the natural environment; societal challenges often inspire questions for scientific research and social priorities often influence research priorities through funding.

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George Cassutto, a social studies teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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