Academic journal article Science Scope

Planetary Properties: A Systems Perspective

Academic journal article Science Scope

Planetary Properties: A Systems Perspective

Article excerpt

What was your planet? Many people can easily answer this question because they remember creating a diorama, writing a report, or giving a presentation on a specific planet when they were in elementary or middle school. Although these types of projects provide students with an opportunity to learn information about the properties of individual planets, they do so in a limited and disconnected way. When instruction focuses on individual planet projects, students rarely have the opportunity to learn about how the individual planets fit into the larger structure of the solar system. In order to make planetary properties meaningful, students need to make connections between each planet's characteristics and the solar system as a whole.

The first step in moving toward a systems perspective is to recognize the patterns across the individual objects in the solar system. Therefore, we developed and implemented a lesson that provides students with an opportunity to learn about the properties of each planet as well as properties that the planets share. The lesson described in this article addresses Earth's place in the universe (MS-ESS1-3) by focusing on the Earth and the Solar System (ESS1.B) disciplinary core idea from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013). Students will engage in the scientific practices of Analyzing and Interpreting Data and Engaging in Argument From Evidence using astronomical data (NGSS Lead States 2013). By completing this lesson, students will also have the opportunity to apply several crosscutting concepts, such as Scale, Proportion, and Quantity; Systems and System Models; and Patterns (NGSS Lead States 2013).

The partnership

With support from the National Science Foundation, the Earth and Space Science Partnership (ESSP) was established to develop a collaborative relationship among scientists, education researchers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers. One set of goals of ESSP is to improve teacher content knowledge, quality of teacher instruction, and student academic achievement around the big idea of the solar system and its formation. Because research through ESSP revealed that many students have a limited understanding of planetary properties and how the planets can be grouped by these properties, a lesson was developed to help support teachers in teaching this material to their students. This lesson was designed using a claims, evidence, and reasoning (CER) framework (McNeill and Krajcik 2012). According to this framework, a claim is "a statement or conclusion that answers the original question/problem," evidence is "scientific data that support the claim," and reasoning is "a justification that connects the evidence to the claim using scientific principles" (McNeill and Krajcik 2012, p. 35). In this lesson, the teacher and students use a CER framework to develop a scientific argument about how to group the planets in the solar system (McNeill and Krajcik 2012).


In our discussion of the lesson below, we draw on the experiences of one of the authors, a middle school science teacher, who adapted the lesson to meet the needs of her sixth-grade students. However, this lesson could be used in any middle school grade.

Teacher background knowledge

The solar system formed approximately five billion years ago from a slowly rotating cloud of dust and gas. Over time, the force of gravity caused this cloud to collapse into a disk. At the center of this disk, intense pressure caused the Sun to form. The remaining material within the disk then combined to form the individual planets. The entire solar system formed from the same initial cloud of dust and gas; therefore, many of the planets share common properties, such as their mass, density, and size. If this model is unfamiliar, we recommend that teachers refer to Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (Tyson and Goldsmith 2005) for more information about how the formation and evolution of the solar system resulted in the current planetary properties. …

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