Teachers See Educational Value in Pluto's Demotion

OMAHA, Neb. (AP)-Pluto may be no more than a distant, icy rock in the minds of astronomers who stripped it of planethood, but its downgrade to a "dwarf planet'' has created a teachable moment in classrooms nationwide.

So what if museums have to adjust their exhibits and publishers update their textbooks?

That's just science, many teachers said Friday at a regional meeting of the National Science Teachers Association.

"Pluto's still the same Pluto,'' said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the NSTA. "It's still up there doing exactly the same thing.''

But its regrouping with newly named Eris and the asteroid Ceres will help teachers define what is-and isn't-a planet.

"I've been saying Pluto's not a planet for years,'' said Donna Governor, a middle school science teacher from Cumming, Ga.

Governor teaches her students about the solar system by having them measure and label orbits of each planet on a long roll of toilet paper. On one end is the sun; 250 sheets away is Pluto's outer orbit.

By comparing Pluto's orbit to those of other celestial bodies, students can grasp the timing of its discovery in 1930 and why scientists reclassified it years later, Governor said.

A booth representing NASA's educational arm distributed solar system trading cards designed for kindergarten- through third-grade students.

"Pluto is the smallest planet in our solar system. It is made of ice and some rock,'' its now-outdated card says.

Educational materials won't change overnight, but NASA will re-evaluate its decision once appeals to keep Pluto in the planet club die down, NASA spokesman Robert Mirelson said.

The appeals surfaced almost as soon as the International Astronomical Union voted in August to demote Pluto. The professional astronomers' group determined that a planet must orbit the sun and be large enough to assume a nearly round shape, as well as "clear the neighborhood around its orbit.''

Pluto didn't qualify under the new definition because its orbit overlaps with Neptune's.

Shortly after the vote, the City Council in Madison, Wis., adopted a tongue-in-cheek resolution declaring Pluto "Madison's ninth planet.'' Friends and colleagues of the late Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the former planet, gathered at New Mexico State University to protest its title-stripping. And scientists in Myanmar declared they would still consider Pluto a planet, despite the IAU vote.

Governor, the teacher, said she understood the appeals, noting that some people had a sentimental attachment to Pluto.

"Mickey Mouse has a cute dog,'' she said.

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