Students in US Elementary schools, by grade 6 (Ages 10-11) have by now mastered analyzing graphical data, plots, charts, tables to search for trends. They have worked with decimal fractions and are adept at multi-digit multiplication and division. They have taken general science classes that feature earth and biological science as topics, but have not had much, if any, contact with astronomy except perhaps for a few weeks at the end of the year. Science fair topics in astronomy will have to be very basic and use only minimal mathematics skills. Most schools have students in Grades 3-6 participating in science fair projects of some type, to stress the 'Scientific Method' of hypothesis testing.
By Middle school, which in the US may include grades 7-9 (Ages 12-14) students are proficient in all basic math computation skills, coordinate plotting (X-Y axis), have begun, or have already had at least one year of algebra or pre-algebra, can work with simple equations. They have had several years of earth and biological science. Their contact with astronomy may have included a few chapters per year discussing the basic contents of the solar system and the universe. They are familiar with the evolution of a star, planets, and the universe. They have begun to surf the Internet looking for science topics, and are familiar with interactive web pages and navigating through form-based interfaces that ask for information input (name, address, etc)
This student group is generally very sophisticated. They have had multiple years of algebra, may have had pre-Calculus or even Advanced Placement Calculus. They have had, or are taking Chemistry and Physics classes. They are ready for challenging projects that in many ways are similar to what they may encounter in college-level undergraduate astronomy laboratory courses. They can readily follow multi-step problems and manage problems that have multiple parts and tasks. Some students may have built their own telescopes or have access to telescopes.
Return to Ask the Astronomer