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Runaway Universe

Classroom Activity

To model how scientists use indirect observations to define problems that are not directly measurable.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "What's in the Box?" student handout (HTML)
  • empty cereal box
  • shish kebab skewer
  • suggested items to be included in each box: marble, fork or spoon, tablespoon of breakfast flakes, table tennis ball, blob of modeling clay
  • balance and ruler
  • unlined paper
Materials for teacher
  • carpenter's wood glue or other liquid adhesive
  • hole puncher
  • masking tape
  1. Have students bring in empty cereal boxes before activity date.

  2. Remove any wax paper lining from the cereal box and add the items to be detected. The items listed above were chosen based on their distinctive sound, weight, texture, or pattern of movement. Any object that has a distinctive characteristic may be included or substituted. All boxes should contain the same type and number of objects.

  3. Punch a quarter-inch (6.4 mm) hole in the center of the top flap close to the fold. A hand-held hole puncher is ideal for this. When finished, this hole will be off-center in the middle of the top.

  4. Put a dab of glue on the open flaps of the box and close. Temporarily secure the flap with masking tape.

  5. When the glue has dried, remove the masking tape and put a small piece of masking tape over the quarter-inch hole.

  6. Organize students into groups and distribute boxes to student groups along with a copy of the "What's in the Box?" student handout.

  7. Have students record as much information about the boxes as they can. After teams have made initial conclusions, distribute one skewer per team. Have teams remove the tape from the quarter-inch hole so that they can explore with their probe.

  8. Have each group summarize its findings and choose one person to present the group's conclusions to the class. To conclude the lesson, discuss the similarities and differences in students' findings and have students assess each others' methods for exploring the boxes. Do students think it is important to have everyone agree on what is in the box? How might any differences in opinion be resolved?

Activity Answer

Students will probably find that the sound of the items was the first thing they observed. They may shake the box to try to ascertain the weight of the items within by how the items feel when they move in the box. Students might try to discover the shape of the objects by shaking the box to determine how the objects sound when they move around. Students might try to smell the box to see what information they can gain through that sense. The probe can reveal more about the nature of the materials within the box.

Students might choose to calculate the box's average density by weighing and measuring the box and then dividing the box's mass by its volume. They might also think of additional probes that could be used to better differentiate the material in the box.

Any difference in opinion among students might be resolved with better instrumentation to test the box, additional data collected from other groups, or a new theory that could explain what is in the box.

Links and Books


Goldsmith, Donald. The Runaway Universe: The Race to Discover the Future of the Cosmos. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 2000.
Explores the latest news on the cosmological constant: that the rate the universe is expanding is actually increasing. Reveals how tentative these latest findings are and describes the consequences of these findings, if true.


Stephens, Sally. "Hubble Warrior." Astronomy, March 2000.
Profiles cosmologist Wendy Freedman, who finds herself at the center of the raging debate about how old and big the cosmos is, and how fast it is expanding.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Runaway Universe
Delves deeper into the program's content and themes, with features such as articles, timelines, interviews, activities, resource links, and more. Launch date: Friday, November 17.

Sloan Digital Sky Survey
This survey will eventually map in detail one-quarter of the entire sky, determining the position and absolute brightness of more than 100 million celestial objects. It will also measure the distances to more than a million galaxies and quasars.

Structure and Evolution of the Universe
NASA site detailing its missions to study the extremes of gravity, space, and time. Offers what's known about such questions as: How did structure in the universe form?

NASA site explaining what a supernova is and offering images of supernovae explosions in the Milky Way galaxy, as well as online animations of phenomena like black holes.


The "What's in the Box?" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Understandings about scientific inquiry

  • Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories. The scientific community accepts and uses such explanations until displaced by better scientific ones. When such displacement occurs, science advances.

Grades 9-12

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Understandings about scientific inquiry

  • Scientific explanations must adhere to criteria such as: a proposed explanation must be logically consistent; it must abide by the rules of evidence; it must be open to questions and possible modification; and it must be based on historical and current scientific knowledge.

Teacher's Guide
Runaway Universe

Video is not required for this activity


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