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Pluto's Demotion: What Will We Tell the Children?

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
August 30, 2006
 
Last week's decision to strip Pluto of its planet status came just as the sun was setting on summer break. The timing has sent teachers and textbook makers scrambling to figure out how to break the news to returning students.

Tom Stanton is communications director for the publisher McGraw-Hill Education. He said the company won't be rushing new textbooks into print to accommodate Pluto's demotion. But within weeks the company's Web-based lesson plans will reflect the change.

It's about time, says one Pasadena, California, educator.

Told You So

Leslie Stotlar is a middle and high school teacher at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School.

She says her students knew all along that Pluto wasn't like the other planets. And they've even tried to tell that to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the body that rejected Pluto.

For about five years Stotlar has been assigning her students to research Pluto and make a case for its planethood—or its demotion—in front of the class.

At the end of the presentations, her classes take a vote. More often than not, the kids decided to give little Pluto the boot.

"They saw the terrestrial planets near the sun and the gas planets outside," and Pluto didn't really fit in, Stotlar said.

"They also saw how the other orbits were on the same plane and Pluto's wasn't," she added. "And they could see Pluto was smaller than our own moon. For seventh and eighth graders, size does matter."

She says at least one of her classes submitted its findings on IAU's Web site.

"My class sent a letter that Pluto shouldn't be a planet any more," Stotlar said. "I actually ran into a few of them a few weeks ago. They were so jazzed that they were right and Pluto was not a planet. They felt they had made a contribution to science."

(Related wallpapers: best space images.)

Life Lessons in Space

Mike Terenzoni, astronomy coordinator at Tucson, Arizona's Flandrau Science Center, said he also has always felt that Pluto didn't belong.

"When I look at Pluto in my telescope, I don't see a disk, no matter how big of a telescope I have. It just looks like a little star. When I look at all the other planets in the solar system, they look like planets," he said.

He likes Pluto, though, and he's been rooting for it to keep its planet status. And that's what he'll say to schoolkids during talks and tours.

"I want Pluto to be a planet. That's what I'll tell them," he said. "But wanting something doesn't make it so. And that's something kids should learn."

Al Bartell, a fifth-grade teacher in Trinity, Texas, called IAU's decision "a wonderful opportunity to teach students that science is a dynamic field and what seemed absolute at one point in time can easily be overturned."

"Mother Just Served Us Nothing!"

Not everyone is taking Pluto's demotion so well.

Jason Kottke operates the Weblog kottke.org and hosted a contest to replace the old mnemonic devices for remembering the planetary lineup.

He offered one of the best-known ones as a starting point: "My (Mercury) very (Venus) elegant (Earth) mother (Mars) just (Jupiter) served (Saturn) us (Uranus) nine (Neptune) pizzas (Pluto)."

The tone of the winning entries is mostly indignant.

"Most vexing experience, mother just served us nothing!" was a runner-up, submitted by contributor Bart Baxter.

One entry, by "Delia," is written from the viewpoint of U.S. astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. "My vision, erased. Mercy! Just some underachiever now."

First place went to Josh Mishell for "My! Very educated morons just screwed up numerous planetariums."

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