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Textbook publishers grapple with Pluto demotion

Teaching about the new solar system? Might want to use the Net for reference--it could be years before most science books are updated.

If you're looking for the most accurate information about the solar system, the Internet trumps science textbooks.

Once upon a time, Pluto . Then it maybe wasn't a planet. Then it was a planet, but only if other chunks of space rock were counted as planets. And now, finally, a conclusion has been reached thanks to new standards devised by the International Astronomical Union (IAU): Pluto isn't a planet. It's a "dwarf planet," as opposed to a "classical planet" like its eight former brethren.

Such fundamental changes to what kids are taught don't happen very often. It's like dropping Australia off the list of continents. Wikipedia got the change right away. So did other Internet resources. Now try correcting the millions of science textbooks, standardized tests, films and even solar system models that will be used in a classroom this fall.

"It's so significant because this is one of those times where it's a subject that reaches all grade levels," said Rebecca Bondor, vice president and editor-in-chief of Scholastic Classroom Magazines, which publishes 23 magazines geared to kindergarten through 12th grade educational audiences. "Children from first grade on up are going to be relearning some very huge things that they learned before."

No matter how quickly a publisher can roll out new editions of its earth science, astronomy, or general science texts, tight state educational budgets complicate the situation. A state's department of education will typically order new course materials every five or six years, said David Hakensen, vice president of public relations at Pearson Education. Since Pearson has no plans to offer physical updates to its existing texts--such as stickers or supplemental pages--the states that ordered new science textbooks for the impending academic year most likely won't be getting new, eight-planet versions for another half decade.

"This is very big, not just for teachers and what it will do for education, but it's very big news for kids. They love the planets. They love stories about space."
--Rebecca Bondor, Scholastic Classroom Magazines

"It will be up to the schools and the states to they want to adopt a new textbook more quickly?" Hakensen said.

Internet sites, of course, don't face such constraints. "Pluto" quickly became one of the top three searches on blog portal Technorati, nipping at the heels of recent search-query topper "Tom Cruise." A frenzy of changes to Wikipedia's entry on the newly ex-planet began almost immediately.

Even sites that normally don't cover astronomical news jumped on the subject: liberal blog Daily Kos, for example, naturally found a way to construct a facetious analogy between Pluto's demotion and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's earlier this month.

With few other options, textbook publishers are also leaning on the Internet to deal with the Pluto demotion through online lesson plans and course supplements.

"Our editors will be taking the information that the IAU made the decisions on today, and they will be synthesizing that with updates as they come in," Hakensen said. By encouraging teachers to take advantage of online add-ons, he hopes that Pearson will be able to keep its science data current even though many of its educational clients won't be seeing the definition of Pluto as a "dwarf planet" in textbooks until well after 2010.

Scholastic's Bondor agreed that the best way for textbook publishers to address the Pluto problem is to turn to the Internet, along with classroom magazines. "We're going to give (students and teachers) up-to-date reporting on this in the magazines and on our Web site so that we can help teachers supplement textbooks that are going to be outdated," Bondor said.

The IAU's decision to demote Pluto from its planetary status is surely giving the educational publishing industry plenty of headaches, but Hakensen see a bright side. Pearson's editors, he said, are "jazzed" about the opportunity to get into something new in the 2007 editions of science textbooks. "This is great for anyone who's teaching earth science or the planets to have something (in the curriculum) that's been in the news that kids have heard about," he said. "This creates a great opportunity, with kids coming back to school, to really build some excitement about science teaching."

Bondor is similarly eager. "This is very big, not just for teachers and what it will do for education, but it's very big news for kids. They love the planets. They love stories about space."