Is Pluto a planet? Fifth-graders study the controversial issue

Still, debate rages on over the the demotion of the orbiting rock from planet to dwarf. Kristina Harvey’s fifth-grade class at La Jolla Elementary School was asked to study the controversy and come to their own conclusions. These fresh, young minds had plenty to say on the subject.

Money, scientific evidence and sentimental value were issues tossed around while they prepared for their presentations on Pluto’s elimination from the list of classical planets. Emotions ran high as students opined in support of and against the astronomers’ decision.

“It was considered a classical planet for a long time, and now they’re saying it’s just a dwarf planet,” said Michael Rhodes. “What? It’s been a planet for 76 years and now they want to change it? I don’t think so.”

Students were split fairly evenly arguing the pros and cons of Pluto’s resent demotion by the International Astronomical Union in August. The kids were armed with facts and figures from the cover article of the Sept. 4 edition of Newsweek as they presented their positions.

Those against Pluto’s demotion spoke of the large financial load that would be inflicted on schools and libraries, the mental burden elementary school students would have to carry as they relearned the list of classical planets and the sentimental value that Pluto held for many in the scientific community and outside of it.

“If Pluto is demoted, a lot of things will have to be changed,” said Vaill D’Angell. “The solar system will be changed, and we will have to learn new things. Everything that we have learned will be erased.”

Matthew Zucca agreed."I don’t think it should be demoted because it will be affecting school children everywhere,” he said. “Schools will have to pay a lot of money for new books.”

For those students who supported the decision to place Pluto into its own class of dwarf planets, questions were raised as to why the definition of a planet is now being decided and why scientists are just now discovering Pluto’s differences.

“I think Pluto should be demoted because it’s overlapping Neptune’s path,” said Brooke Peterson. “But, why didn’t they figure that out in the first place? So, really it should have been demoted 75 years ago.”

Zeina Jaouhar thought this could set a bad precedent.

“I don’t think Pluto should be demoted because it’s been here for a long time, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s smaller than all the other planets,” Jaouhar said. “Next are they going to take away Mars or something?”

During the August astronomers meeting in Prague, the term “planet” was redefined. Along with a new definition came a list of what the general public can consider planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The new definition states that a planet is “a celestial body that is in orbit around the Sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a (spherical) shape and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

Because Pluto does not have the gravitational strength to clear the neighborhood around its orbit, it is no longer considered a planet.

Pluto was placed into a new category of dwarf planets, created at the same meeting. Pluto is also a member of a new group of trans-Neptunian objects that has not been officially named.

Dwarf planets do have some characteristics in common with planets. Both types of heavenly bodies orbit the Sun and both are nearly round in shape.

While Kristina Harvey’s fifth-grade class has a firm grasp on the scientific reasoning behind the decision to demote Pluto, some students believed it best to apply the Golden Rule.

“How would you like it if you were really tiny and you weren’t treated like all the other planets?” asked Justin Cook.

“You wouldn’t want to be demoted.”