The Ultimate Guide to Satellites for Educators: 35 Lesson Plans and Activities for K-12

Satellites are more than just tools in space exploration. They’ve paved the way for many technological advances and shifted the way we communicate and consume media, with satellites providing television, radio, and internet services around the world. With satellites playing such a major role in so many facets of modern life, it’s important for students to learn about satellite technology, the advancements satellites have contributed to throughout history, and of course, how they aid and ease communication in the modern world – providing access to television, internet, cable, and more.

Industrial Satellite Dish Array

Image via Flickr by Marion Doss

We’ve compiled a comprehensive collection of satellite resources for educators, including lesson plans, classroom activities, and other resources on the history of satellites, how satellites work, and the importance of satellites in communications, both today and throughout history, encompassing resources for students in grades K-4, 5-8, all the way through 9-12.

 

The History of Satellites and Satellite Basics

For students to understand how satellites function and the role they play in day-to-day life, it’s important to build foundational knowledge on the history of satellites, when they were first used, and how they helped transform our daily lives through the many advancements made possible through satellites. The following lesson plans, activities, and other resources are useful for establishing foundational knowledge on the history of satellites for students in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Broadcast Satellite

Image via Flickr by Timothy Vollmer

Grades K-4

Releasing and Catching Satellites

A useful article suitable for students in grades K-6, this resource is an excellent companion to lessons and activities focused on the history of satellites. The article discusses the Challenger mission, including the release of three satellites into space. Source: Scholastic Teachers

EarthNow! Near-Real Time Satellite Image Viewer

This resource is useful for teachers who want to give elementary students an understanding of what satellites see as they pass over the Earth. The EarthNow! Landsat Image Viewer shows “near-real time satellite imagery from the Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 satellites as they pass over North America. A fun way to learn more about these satellites and their imagery is to watch a high-resolution, 1-hour public lecture, Looking Down On Our Planet: New Satellite Imagery Reveals a Changing Global Surface.” Source: USGS

Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

Another useful resource from the USGS that’s ideal for establishing foundational knowledge of satellites for students in grades K-4, Earthshots “is an e-book of before-and-after Landsat images (1972-present), showing recent environmental events and introducing the concept of remote sensing. Each set of images includes a detailed description, photographs and maps, a list of references, and a question/answer.” Source: USGS

Where Am I – Navigation and Satellites

“Students explore geography by completing a navigation activity in class. In this satellite positioning lesson, students define terms such as orbit, satellite, GPS and triangulation. Students view diagrams of the Earth’s orbit and complete math problems to determine the differences in geographic locations on Earth.” This lesson is an excellent foundational unit for students in grades 3-5. Source: Lesson Planet

 

Grades 5-8

The Great Satellite Search!

This learning activity is designed to help students gain proficiency researching topics on the Internet and is designed to be incorporated into other topics such as technology, electronic communication, computers, or space exploration. Focused on satellites, students work in small teams and are assigned or choose a satellite to research. Students then use the Internet to research and prepare a presentation on the history of their satellite, which will be presented to the class. Source: Exploratorium

Satellites

Satellites is a book and accompanying lesson plan that provides students with background information on the history of artificial (man-made) satellites, the various types of satellites, and how satellites are used in our daily lives. Objectives include summarizing the information in a text, sequencing events, understanding and using articles, and looking up content words using a dictionary. Source: Reading A-Z.com

How Satellites See

“How Satellites See” is a lesson plan targeted to students in grades 3 through 8 which takes approximately six 45-minute class periods to complete. Students participating in this lesson should have some understanding of the spectrum, using thermometers, the different types of light sources, and simple geographical and solar system concepts. “This project will compare and contrast three NASA satellites: The Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE), The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The lesson includes access to data and images from these three NASA astronomy satellites, contrasting the way the sky appears in three very different electromagnetic wavelengths or colors of light. Other satellite information is included, but the project’s focus is a simple introduction to the electromagnetic spectrum as used by the three space observatories.” Source: Multiverse at the University of California, Berkeley

 

Grades 9-12

Mass Media Studies on Television: Lesson Plan & Prezi

This lesson doesn’t rely on a specific textbook (materials are readily available, including a Prezi) and “looks at key moments in the history of both broadcast and cable/satellite/Internet television medium, the economics of television in the different revenue streams and the challenges faced by television at various times, including today.” Source: Teachers Pay Teachers

The Early Satellites

This resource is suitable for students in grades 9-12 in terms of reading comprehension, although teachers of students in grades 5-8 may also find this material to be a useful supplement in educating students about the history of satellites through NASA’s programs. Source: NASA

US Air Force Satellite Test Center: Supporting America’s “Eyes in Space” During the Cold War

This detailed lesson plan is ideal for students in grades 10 and 11. “The lesson can be used in American history, social studies, and geography courses in units on modern American history, the Cold War, and the development of satellite programs, including those used for reconnaissance. This lesson can also be used in a science course, such as a unit on astronomy.” Prepared by the US Air Force in accordance with the National Park Service (NPS) Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plans guidance, students will learn about the events leading to the development of satellite reconnaissance systems as well as how satellite technology has evolved from the 1960s through today. Source: City of Sunnyvale, California

 

How Satellites Work

The following lesson plans, activities, and classroom resources are useful for educating students about the function and use of satellites and how they work. From information on NASA’s programs as background information on the configuration and process of releasing satellites into space to detailed lessons allowing students to explore the ways satellites are used for communication, these resources include comprehensive lesson plans and materials for students from grade K through grade 12.

NOAA Observational Satellite

Image via Flickr by NOAA Photo Library

 

Grades K-4

Lesson: Keep in Touch: Communications and Satellites

In this lesson, ideal for students in grade 4 but appropriate for students in grades 3-5, students “explore the role of communications and how satellites help people communicate with others far away and in remote areas with nothing around (i.e., no obvious telecommunications equipment).” Source: Teach Engineering

Satellites and us.

This lesson educates students on the role satellites play in everyday life. Students will learn what satellites are, how they’re constructed, and how information travels between Earth and satellites. Source: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Technology at Work 2

Ideal for students in grades 3-5, this interactive video lesson focuses on how magnetism, television, and satellites work. Students will learn when the first satellite was launched into space, the types of information that Global Positioning Satellites are constantly sending, and why scientists are tracking blue and elephants with GPS, among other uses for satellites in the modern world. Source: Midway Independent School District

 

Grades 5-8

What is a Man-made Satellite?

This lesson plan can be used for students in grades 1-7. Students will explore man-made satellites and gain an understanding of the physics of how satellites are launched into orbit, as well as how satellites are used for exploration, communication, and other purposes. Source: Satellite Educators Association via the California State University

Creativity in Science

This 45-minute lesson is designed for students in grades 5 through 8. In this activity, students will research various satellites and learn about how they are used. Additionally, students will “explore the different job roles in the development of satellites and web pages used to communicate scientific discoveries from those satellites.” Source: PBS LearningMedia

Space Lesson: Satellite Orbit

In this lesson, students will examine how satellites orbit the Earth and how to calculate how many times a satellite would pass over the equator given various specifications. Upon completion of this lesson, students will understand how the Earth can be mapped using satellite imagery. Source: Little Bits Electronics

Tracking Change Over Time

Students in grades 5-8 gain an understanding of remote sensing and the use of satellite imagery to track changes over time in this comprehensive lesson plan and guide for educators. “Once students learn the basics of remote sensing and how to use the MultiSpec software, they can delve deeper into specific topics with the individual modules. These modules demonstrate the uses of satellite data to track different types of landscape change over time. Students will be able to see how scientists compare images like these to learn more about changes taking place in a region.” Source: USGS Publications Warehouse

 

Grades 9-12

Hatch a Plot to Track… Some Satellites!

There are hundreds of satellites currently orbiting Earth, including the International Space Station. In this lesson, students “will access an online directory and tracking database of satellites, plot the locations of satellites and track their progress in orbit.” Objectives include distinguishing the various types of satellites, tracking the orbital paths of satellites, and identifying the various benefits of satellites. This activity can be completed in approximately 60 to 90 minutes. Source: ISS-CASIS

Satellites and Space Probes

This article is suitable for students in grades 6-8 or grades 9-12 and can be used with a variety of lesson plans and activities focused on satellites. Astronomer Dr. Cathy Imhoff of the Space Telescope Science Institute answers questions related to how satellites work, how they collect data, and more. Source: Scholastic Teachers

Around the World

This lesson, designed for students in grades 5-12, provides students with an understanding of how satellites orbit the Earth. Students gain an understanding of how objects stay in orbit, important background knowledge for understanding how satellites work and how they are placed in the Earth’s orbit in order to provide scientists and researchers with information and aid in communication. Source: NASA for Educators

Learning About Satellites and Remote Sensing

Meteorological satellites (or more broadly, environmental satellites) have been around for 40 years. Imagery from satellites are standard fare for television weathercasts and are familiar to most everyone. This comprehensive set of instructional materials, lessons, and activities provides students with a basic understanding of electromagnetic spectrum, satellite remote sensing, some specific applications and explanations of how some satellites work. Source: NOAA

What Can We Learn From Satellite Images?

In this lesson, ideal for students in grades 9-12, students will evaluate their own town’s history while exploring how satellites are used to learn about changes over time. “Students will look at maps and satellite images to see how various settled parts of the Earth have changed over the past few decades. They will then draw maps of their hometown, showing how it might have looked in satellite images in the 1970s and today.” Source: National Geographic

 

Satellites in Communication

Satellites play a critical role in modern communications and media, although their importance is rarely obvious to us in our everyday lives. The following resources, activities, and lesson plans focus on providing students with knowledge about the role that satellites play in our everyday lives and, specifically, how they’re used to streamline media and communications, such as television, cable, internet, and more.

Commercial Satellite Dish

Image via Flickr by Gerard Eviston

Grades K-4

Keep in Touch: Communications and Satellites

Students in grades 3 to 5 investigate how satellites aid in communication in remote areas and enable people to communicate with others at long distances. Students discuss a scenario in which a person travels to a remote area with no mode of communication, observe a teacher demonstration, and create a drawing of a communications satellite orbiting Earth to demonstrate their knowledge. In a related activity for 4th graders, students learn about the concept of orbiting and gravitational pull by reviewing diagrams, followed by assessment based on the results of an image analysis activity. Source: Lesson Planet

Why We Explore Space

Suitable for students in grades 4 and 5, this lesson focuses on the importance of space exploration. Students will learn about the various technological (electronic, communication, or digital) improvements that have resulted from the exploration of space, as well as the practical improvements resulting from space exploration that have impacted their own lives personally. Source: HotChalk Lesson Plans Page

Thomas Edison Lesson Plan: How Inventions Build Upon Each Other

“In this lesson plan, which is adaptable for grades 3-8, students use BrainPOP resources to identify important accomplishments in the life of Thomas Edison. Students will also research later inventions that utilized Edison’s scientific findings and/or improved on his inventions.” Source: BrainPOP Educators

How Communication Technologies Affect People

This unit is specifically designed for third grade students and takes approximately 14 days to complete. Students learn 21st Century skills by completing a worksheet, first with known information, and then with researched information. They then create a PowerPoint, video, or radio broadcast to convey the results of their research. Students learn to use a graphic organizer to sort their Internet resources, learning about modern communication technologies and how they impact our daily lives throughout the unit. Source: Lesson Planet

 

Grades 5-8

Space Math II – Problem 22, A Bit of Satellite Math

This lesson plan and activity incorporates both math and science. Designed for students in grades 7-9, this activity requires students to determine the lifespan of communication satellites using problem-solving skills. Source: NASA for Educators

Young Citizens and Television Broadcasters

This lesson, which can be used for students in grades 5-12, “provides the opportunity for students to survey local broadcast television coverage and to analyze programming broadcast to the public.” As part of this lesson, students will discuss how a television program gets from the studio to a television in a home, including a discussion of satellites, airwaves, and cable. Source: Citizen Advocacy Center

Let’s Make a Deal

This lesson is ideal for students in grades 7-12 and allows students to examine modern satellite radio within the context of broadcast communications and media. “Students read an article about the merger between the two satellite radio companies. Individually, they respond to questions to determine if the internet and MP3 players should be considered competition to radio. In groups, they participate in a debate supporting or opposing the use of talk show hosts such as Howard Stern.” Source: Lesson Planet

NASA at 50 – 1994: GPS Satellite Constellation Completed

This video learning clip and accompanying educator’s guide is useful for students in grades 6-12. “This episode highlights the creation of the global positioning system and explains how NASA satellites keep GPS working in cars, boats and portable devices around the world.” Source: NASA for Educators

 

Grades 9-12

Modelling Satellite Remote Sensing

In this lesson, designed for students in grades 9-12, students will create a working model to demonstrate and learn about how satellites are used in communication. Students build a simple, electronic light sensor that transmits an audible tone. The transmitted signal can be received using any FM radio. Students will experiment and make observations to gain an understanding of how satellites facilitate communication. Source: Satellite Educators Association via the California State University

Communications Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible

This resource is an excellent companion to related lesson plans and classroom activities, providing a brief-yet-comprehensive overview of the history of communications satellites and the role they play in creating today’s “global village.” Source: NASA

How Does Your Smartphone Know Your Location?

This video “explains how satellites, atomic clocks, and the theory of relativity make GPS systems possible.” A useful resource that could be used with middle or high school students, this video is approximately 45 minutes in length and is a valuable supplement to a larger unit on how satellites play a role in our daily lives through GPS technology that many people use daily via their smartphones to receive relevant, local information on the weather and more. Source: Lesson Planet

Comparing the Satellite and Broadcast Radio Landscapes

In this lesson, students in grades 9-12 examine the development of satellite technology over the past 50 years. Additionally, “students explain how the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed the rules for corporate ownership of multiple media outlets.” This lesson will take approximately two class periods – or two hours – to complete. Source: Lesson Planet

The STEREO Mission: Getting The Message Across

“In this STEREO satellites instructional activity, students are given a chart with the intensity of the signals from the satellites received on Earth and the distances of the satellite from Earth. Students convert the intensity at each distance to power and solve 5 problems comparing the data at different distances.” Source: Lesson Planet