Pluto's Plight a Test for Science Teachers

Schools are opening in North Carolina and one big question for science teachers is: What will they say about Pluto? Jessica Jones of member station WUNC sought to find out.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's back to school time, and students are finding that their world, or rather their solar system, changed over the summer. From member station WUNC, Jessica Jones reports on what some North Carolina students and their teachers have to say about the demotion of Pluto from its full planetary status.

JESSICA JONES reporting:

On a shelf in John Heffernan's(ph) class at Forest View Elementary in Durham, there's a working model of the solar system. Now he's got to explain to his third graders that there's one too many planets on that model.

Mr. JOHN HEFFERNAN (Teacher): What were going to do right now is I'd like you to bring your science notebook and let's come and sit in a circle on the right.

JONES: Heffernan perches on the edge of a tiny chair at the front of the circle.

Mr. HEFFERNAN: All of the sudden you wake up one Saturday and Pluto is now called a dwarf planet, not a planet. Do you think it's okay for scientists to change the names?

Unidentified Child: No.

Mr. HEFFERNAN: What group it goes into?

JONES: Eight year old Jenina Spencer(ph), whose hair is twisted into ponytails, says she feels like she's getting the run-around from these scientist.

Ms. JENINA SPENCER (Student): It doesn't make sense that they just take a different name because people might get mad at each other and say, no, it's a planet; no, it's a dwarf planet; no, it's planet; no, it's a dwarf planet.

JONES: Other students like blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cole Barnhill took the news pretty hard.

Mr. COLE BARNHILL (Student): I really liked Pluto because it's the farthest planet and my friend really likes it, so I'm sad that it's not a planet.

JONES: A few miles away, at Chapel Hill High, Rob Greenburg's science students are wondering how to rework the memory short cut, my very educated mother just served us nine pizzas. The pneumonic device helps students remember the old order of the planets from Mercury to Pluto. Keith King is a senior in the class.

Mr. KEITH KING (Student): She just served you nine - or not nine, but something starts with N.

Unidentified Male: Something that starts with an N. Noodles.

Mr. KING: Yeah. Noodles. My very educated mother just served us noodles.

JONES: But King says he's skeptical his new version will catch on.

Mr. KING: I imagine we'll just use the same one, because they still have to recognize that Pluto's there.

JONES: It may not be a planet, King says, but Pluto is still out there. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones.

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