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Classifying Solar System Objects: Is Pluto a Planet or Not?

Presentation #410.04 in the session “Education and Community Engagement”.

Published onOct 03, 2021
Classifying Solar System Objects: Is Pluto a Planet or Not?

For about 20 years, we have been conducting workshops for teachers and Girl Scout adult leaders. These workshops have covered topics ranging from the Solar System to constellations, stars, and galaxies. One of the overriding themes of these workshops has been how scientists look for patterns and attempt to group what they see into categories—planets, small Solar System bodies, moons, constellations, stars, etc. We have created many activities that build upon this theme that are age-level appropriate. One that we have emphasized in recent years is an outgrowth of the controversy around the reclassification of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. Our inability to conduct face-to-face workshops has required us to look for innovative ways to present this and other topics. We emphasize that how scientists group Solar System objects, stars, etc., is influenced by what is important to them—there may be more than one “correct” answer. We will present in our poster how we are now carrying out this activity.

Our ability to compare (same and different), find patterns, and categorize are some of the processes that help us bring order to the Universe, enabling us to apply our understanding more broadly. We first model how scientists classify groups of objects. We then tour the Solar System, modeling how this is applied to Solar System bodies. As a group, we attempt to answer these questions: How are planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, etc. classified? Do all objects in the same class have all the same properties? Do properties overlap classes? Does Solar System classification apply to extrasolar planetary systems? Participants are provided with examples of how our prior knowledge has helped us understand the physical processes on Solar System bodies and are given examples of objects that have been reclassified as we learn more about them. We provide examples of how objects we have visited have not fit into our prior expectations and how this has led to new fields of study. Examples include comet-like activity on asteroids and possible subsurface oceans on moons and dwarf planets. We provide participants with materials to carry out these activities with their students and Girl Scouts.

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