Image Detective Lesson Plan — Taking an astronaut’s view of the Earth

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in the ISS cupola taking photos on ISS-42. Credit: NASA

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The Image Detective Lesson Plan is a series of activities that asks students to take an astronaut’s view of the Earth and highlights how we use images from space to determine changes on Earth. Students first learn about the differences between observation and inferences, and then use their new understandings in the game EarthMatch. In this game, students work together to explore real astronaut pictures of the Earth taken from the International Space Station and make inferences based on these observations. Students are then encouraged to use their new skills by participating in the Image Detective citizen science project and add to our understanding of Earth.

Designed for middle school students and beyond, the Image Detective Lesson Plan follows the 5E’s sequence of Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate and is aligned with the NGSS and Common Core standards.

The activities include:

  • Engage: Observations and inferences
  • Explore: EarthMatch, a matching card game
  • Explain: How do we know Earth changes?
  • Elaborate: Become a citizen scientist! Participate in the Image Detective citizen science project
  • Evaluate: What type of change?


  • Lesson plan (Word 926 KB or PDF 6.3 MB)
  • Game worksheet (Word or PDF)
  • Answer key (Word or PDF)
  • EarthMatch playing cards (PDF)

Grade Level: Appropriate for grades 6 and up. Ideal for public and school audiences.

Time Required: Minimum two and a half hours

Materials Needed:

  • Downloadable worksheets
  • EarthMatch playing cards 
  • Projector or dry erase board

Next Generation Science Standards (Adaptable for 1,5,MS,HS):

  • DCI:  ESS2.A: Earth’s Materials and Systems: The planet’s systems interact over scales that range from microscopic to global in size, and they operate over fractions of a second to billions of years. These interactions have shaped Earth’s history and will determine its future.
  • Practices:   Students will… Ask questions and define problems: Ask questions that arise from careful observation of data to clarify and/or seek additional information.
  • Cross-cutting concepts: Scale, proportion and quantity. In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion or quantity affect a system’s structure.

Common Core


  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6-8.1.C: Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.
  • CCR Reading Anchor #7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

5 E’s Sequence of activities:

  • Engage:
    What is the difference between observations & inferences? (25 minutes)
  • Explore:
    Play EarthMatch (60 minutes)
  • Explain:
    Discuss hypotheses, strategies in making observations and inferences (10 minutes)
  • Elaborate:
    Participate in Image Detective citizen science project. (45 minutes)
  • Evaluate:
    Make inferences about types of change observed in images. (10 minutes)

Please try these activities with your students and let us know what you think by dropping us an email at educate [at]

What is the Image Detective citizen science project?

While residing in in the International Space Station, astronauts take pictures (and lots of them!) and have accumulated millions of photographic images – images that need information and labels to be added to them.  Using the internet-based Image Detective program, students of all ages identify geo-science and other features in the images, and determine where on Earth the photo is centered. By adding labels to images, scientists and the public will be able to search through an online catalogue of images to help support their studies.  The work done on Image Detective can help contribute to our understanding of the Earth in many ways, like changes over time, human population growth, land use change, weather, climate change, ecosystems, and the cycling of Earth’s materials.

Astronaut Mae Jemison, mission specialist on mission STS-47, floating between tasks in the orbiter Endeavor. Credit: NASA

More resources:

Image Detective Main Page

Image Detective Trailer URL (Coming Soon!)

NASA’s International Space Station main page

International Space Station: Facts, History & Tracking