When Nature Strikes: You Be the Solar Scientist!

Students will learn that the Sun is a dynamic star. They will learn that events on the Sun are linked to a 11-year sunspot cycle, and that those events can impact life on Earth. They will use graphing to predict years of heavy solar activity and will learn how to graph a solar active region. Finally, they will practice communicating about space weather to the "general public" (their class). Materials:
  • Blank piece of paper
  • Pencil
  • Colored pencils
  • Computer with internet connection/projector (to show video and presentations)
  • Student Worksheet
  • Graph Paper - This linked site allows you to generate and print various types of graph paper. The default setting with lines every 1/4 inch will work well for this activity.
  • Ruler
  • Calculator
Windows to the Universe Original (with use of sunspot number data from the WDC-SILSO, Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels, and active sunspot region data from Rice University-Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, Summer Solar Institute)
Grade level:


2 hour long class periods (more time if research/project creation is done in class)
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will understand that the Sun is ever changing (dynamic).
  • Students will learn about the sunspot cycle. They will graph sunspot data and make predictions based on their graphing.
  • Students will understand how to graph an active region of the Sun and make predictions based on their graphing.
  • Students will understand that space weather research and communication are vital to protecting life on Earth.
Lesson format:
Class discussion, graphing exercise, data analysis, research/presentation activity

Standards Addressed:

This lesson assists learners in developing proficiency in NGSS Performance Expectation MS-ESS3-2 (Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.)

    NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:
  • ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System
  • ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems
  • ESS2.D: Weather and Climate
    NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
  • Patterns
  • Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
  • Stability and change


    Day 1
  1. To begin this lesson, assess what students know about the Sun. Have them work in teams of 2-3 per group to draw a picture of the Sun with labels or text telling all of the facts they know about the Sun. Students may want to use colored pencils during this portion of the Activity. This is a great way to get students engaged in the topic and it assesses what they know already. Have a spokesperson from each group share 1 fact they noted about the Sun. Have each group add a fact if they have a new one to mention. Many middle school groups will have information related to the fact that the Sun is hot, it has layers, sunspots, flares, possibly even CME's (coronal mass ejections). Groups may point out the location of the Sun in the solar system and that there are spacecraft exploring the Sun.
  2. To start making the connection between the Sun and space weather, have class watch the When Nature Strikes: Space Weather video.
  3. Print enough copies of the student worksheet (1 per student). Now explain to students that they will be learning skills that real solar scientists use. Have students complete Skill #1 and Skill #2 during class. Students may wish to use a ruler for graphing exercises and a calculator to answer some math questions.
  4. Assign research needed for Skill #3 for homework. Students may work in groups (or not), but will create short presentations about a hypothetical CME approaching Earth. Creation of this presentation could be assigned for homework across a week or could be done in class.
  5. Day 2
  6. Allow students to present their short announcements during class.


Please use the teacher's rubric to assess and grade students' progress on the Student Worksheet (skills #1 and #2). Assess short presentations along the following lines (inclusion of 5 scientific facts 40%, clarity of communication 30%, creativity 15%, participation and group work 15%).


Always use safe laboratory practices.


Have students store their materials and clean up their individual desk areas.


  • Have groups of students research historical space weather events. Here are some examples: the Little Ice Age, Maunder Minimum, Medieval Maximum, Halloween Storms of 2003, Modern Maximum, 1989 Geomagnetic Storm in Canada, Carrington Event, Bastille Day Event.
  • Have groups of students research current solar missions - what the mission is studying, expected mission lifetime, main mission web site, scientific findings/news from mission, where the mission is located in orbit around the Sun. The Sun Today has a nice picture showing solar missions and Wikipedia has a nice list of solar missions.
  • Have students write a computer program that will graph sunspot number versus year from 1700-present. The computer program could also find the average solar cycle from 1700-present, identify maximums and minimums, and make predictions for future years. Students could also use Excel or a similar software to graph and analyze sunspot data.
  • Obtain a SID monitor through the Stanford Solar Center and set up in your classroom. Classroom activities for using the SID monitor in your classroom are available through the Solar Center's Teacher Guide.
  • Have students record space weather data at the beginning of class each day for a month. Windows to the Universe's Space Weather Today and Spaceweather.com will be helpful in recording data such as solar wind speed, solar wind density, sunspot number (daily), and a daily image of the Sun (printed or drawn by students). See if students can make connections during the month between this recorded data and the chance or occurrence of solar storms (on main page of Spaceweather.com).
  • Have more advanced students explore Helioweaver.org, a solar data browser. There is an Interactive Tutorial that will help students get started.


Weather on Earth is the set of ever-changing ambient conditions in our atmosphere. Its elements include temperature, air pressure, wind speed and direction, humidity, precipitation, and so on. Space weather is the set of ever-changing ambient conditions in the space within our Solar System. Its elements include electromagnetic radiation, the solar wind of charged particles which flows outward from the Sun, and the force of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (IMF) which spirals outward from our parent star.

Space Weather Starts at the Sun

The Sun is the primary driver of space weather. Storms on the Sun, in the form of solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), can launch showers of radiation and powerful magnetic fields into interplanetary space. We are most concerned about local impacts of space weather, meaning those storms which are directed at Earth and influence our home planet.

Space Weather at Earth and in Near-Earth Space (Geospace)

When a cold front on Earth encounters a mountain range the local weather conditions are influenced by the local topography. Similarly, when a strong pulse in the solar wind generated by a CME encounters Earth's magnetic field, the solar wind and Earth's magnetosphere interact in complex ways to influence the net results of the "storm" on Earth and in near-Earth space.

Short-term and Long-term Changes in Space Weather

Some of our space weather comes as short-lived storms which can last minutes to hours to days. The Sun also undergoes cycles in its level of activity that span years to decades, causing longer-term variations in space weather. Finally, the Sun has changed substantially over the multi-billion year history of our Solar System, producing long term "climate change" effects in our space weather.

How does Space Weather affect People and Human Society?

Why is space weather of interest to humans? Since sunlight is the primary driver of Earth's weather, variations in the Sun's output may influence weather and climate on Earth. Radiation from space weather storms can endanger astronauts and can damage and destroy satellites, such as those used for cell phone communications. Some electrical power grids have been knocked out of commission by especially powerful solar storms. Such storms can be sources of beauty as well as destruction. The marvelous displays of the aurora (the Northern and Southern Lights) are caused by collisions of particles energized by solar storms with gases in Earth's upper atmosphere.

Why do we see sunspots rotating across the Sun?

The Sun rotates on its axis. This rotation is faster at the equator than at the poles. The Sun will make a complete rotation in about 28 days at the equator and 37 days at the poles. Therefore, sunspots at the equator rotate across the face of the Sun in about 14 days.



Last modified April 28, 2016 by Jennifer Bergman.

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA