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Shonna McElveen, a speech-language pathologist at Landstuhl Middle School and an astronomy enthusiast, discusses with Elane Edwards’ 7th-grade class the reclassification of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.
Shonna McElveen, a speech-language pathologist at Landstuhl Middle School and an astronomy enthusiast, discusses with Elane Edwards’ 7th-grade class the reclassification of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. (Ben Bloker / S&S)
Shonna McElveen, a speech-language pathologist at Landstuhl Middle School and an astronomy enthusiast, discusses with Elane Edwards’ 7th-grade class the reclassification of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.
Shonna McElveen, a speech-language pathologist at Landstuhl Middle School and an astronomy enthusiast, discusses with Elane Edwards’ 7th-grade class the reclassification of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. (Ben Bloker / S&S)
Items related to Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet decorate the door to Elane Edwards’ 7th grade classroom.
Items related to Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet decorate the door to Elane Edwards’ 7th grade classroom. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

The morning after Pluto was set back a grade, science teacher Penny Gibson broached the subject with one of her classes.

Some students had heard the news. Others had not. But either way, the International Astronomical Union’s Aug. 24 decision to strip Pluto of its planetary status launched her seventh-grade class on a brief but animated chat that touched on physics, planets, the solar system and science in general. Toward the end, one student displayed a doodle that bid adieu to No. 9. The Pluto picture featured a tombstone, an epitaph and “RIP.”

“Technology has a tremendous amount of advantages, but I think there are disadvantages, too,” said Gibson, a five-year veteran of AFNorth International School in Brunssum, Netherlands.

The IAU’s decision to “ditch” Pluto bothers Gibson. The move, she said, “is kind of like taking ‘z’ out of the alphabet.”

And yet Pluto’s demotion to the rank of a planetary poodle — “dwarf planet” is the proper term — has given Gibson and other DODDS teachers a golden opportunity to promote science and all its processes and disciplines.

In phone conversations and e-mail responses, teachers and administrators with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe said they welcomed the chance to capitalize on this cosmic dust-up. For now, there are no immediate plans to order new textbooks.

With the school year just getting off the ground, science teachers intend to address the issue in detail later, though many are using the occasion to stoke the students’ heightened interest in science, however fleeting it may be.

“Science is not exact. Things change,” said Lynn Smith, a science specialist at DODDS-Europe headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany. “This is what science is all about. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

After years of debate, the IAU formally decided at a meeting last month in Prague that Pluto just didn’t make the grade as a planet. The leading astronomers of the world determined that for an object to be called a planet it had to independently orbit the sun and possess enough mass so that gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape.

It also must be large enough to “dominate” its orbit, the IAU ruled. The example it gave involved an object’s mass, which must be much larger than anything else crossing its path. In Pluto’s case, it will cross inside Neptune’s orbital plane for more than a decade during its 248-year loop around the sun.

At Landstuhl Middle School in Germany, Shonna McElveen, a speech-language pathologist and astronomy enthusiast, discussed Pluto with Elane Edwards’ seventh-grade class.

One student had remembered the order of the planets by reciting, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”

Of course that won’t work any more. McElveen recommended, “My Very Evil Mother Just Served Us Nothing.”

Leland “Wally” Walbruch, a science teacher at Menwith Hill School in the United Kingdom, wasted no time making alterations to his classroom décor. Near the front door he left Pluto out of a planetary line-up on a bulletin board.

“It was just to drive the point home to the kids,” Walbruch said.

Robert Brown, a high school science teacher at Lajes American School in the Azores, a part of Portugal, said some of his students “were rather vexed” by the Pluto put-down. The issue got his students’ attention, and they began to ask questions and probe the reasoning behind the decision. Brown, a former DODDS student and military veteran, said he more or less let the students steer the conversation as they connected the proverbial dots on their own.

Sentimentality is fine, Brown said, but science “just doesn’t work that way. It’s a process. You’re always revisiting what you think you know.”

Stars and Stripes photographer Ben Bloker contributed to this report.

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