Grade Levels: 3-5, 6-8, 9-12

In this lesson plan, adaptable for grades 5-9, students discover, explore, and play to  learn about the life cycle of stars and the connection between elements and space. The culminating activity, Journey Through an Exploded Star simulation, invites them to explore real data that provide evidence for the dispersal of several elements produced by the explosion of massive stars, specifically through the Cassiopeia A supernova. 

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

Lesson Plan Next Generation Science Standards Alignments

Students will:

  1. Understand how and why scientists study supernovas.
  2. Communicate scientific ideas about the way stars, over their life cycles, can produce elements.
  3. Discover how certain telescopes use the principles of wave behavior and wave interactions with matter to transmit and capture information and energy across the electromagnetic spectrum.


  • Computers or other devices with Internet access
  • Interactive whiteboard


This lesson plan features a simulation called Journey Through an Exploded Star, developed by our partner, the Smithsonian Learning Lab. This simulation invites students to navigate the fiery aftermath of a supernova in 3D and explore the forces that connect each of us to the stars. 

Preview and play Journey Through an Exploded Star to plan how you will adapt it to your students’ needs. If students will be playing in small groups, review tips on Setting Cooperative Gaming Expectations.

Assign Journey Through an Exploded Star to the whole class using the Assignment Builder.

Depending on your classroom routines and available technology, you may want to consider these grouping options:
  • 1:1 with students and devices
  • Two to three students sharing one device and swapping ideas and the device back and forth
  • Station model where small groups rotate through using the devices

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Prompt students to brainstorm what they know about how and why stars explode and what happens to them after. Jot their ideas on the board or chart paper.
  2.  Once everyone has had a chance to share, show the BrainPOP movie Life Cycle of Stars on the whiteboard. Turn on the closed caption option to aid in comprehension, and pause as needed to discuss concepts.
  3. After the movie, project the Smithsonian’s DISCOVER activity on the whiteboard. As you click through the slides, guide students through the images, diagrams, video, etc. that describe how the visible spectrum of light is only a small part of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The slides also describe the different telescopes scientists use to view the electromagnetic radiation across that spectrum, and how scientists have used that data to form a composite view of our universe, specifically through a 3D model of the Cassiopeia A supernova.
  4. Next, display the EXPLORE  activity.  By examining the 3D visualization of data, students will gain an understanding of how and why scientists study supernovas such as Cassiopeia A (to gain a comprehensive picture of the cosmos).
  5. After going through DISCOVER and EXPLORE, have students return to their seats to PLAY the sim Journey Through an Exploded Star individually, with a partner, or with a small group. The sim takes students on a first-person flight through the center of an exploded star. Instruct students to begin with the two-minute Narrated Tour that explains   the different forms of light and the elements that are traceable under those spectrums. 
  6. After the guided tour, have students click Free Explore to manipulate the different spectrums by adjusting filters as they choose.  
  7. Finally, bring the class together to discuss and review what they learned. Return to the original brainstorm and revise to delete incorrect information and add new knowledge.

Extension Activities:

Invite students to watch videos about two different astronomy careers: