Sizing Up the Solar System: Students Learn about the Notion of Scale

By Wiebke, Heidi; Rogers, Meredith Park et al. | Science and Children, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Sizing Up the Solar System: Students Learn about the Notion of Scale


Wiebke, Heidi, Rogers, Meredith Park, Nargund-Joshi, Vanashri, Science and Children


When you ask "What is a model?" and your student responds "A very attractive woman," you can't help but laugh. However, this was not quite the response I was hoping for. As I probed a little further, I realized that most of my elementary students have little knowledge about what models are, and even fewer know how they are used in science. What could I do?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS 1993) states that by the end of fifth grade, students should understand that a model, such as those we often see depicting the solar system, is a smaller version of the real product, making it easier to physically work with and therefore learn from. However, for students and even adults, understanding the size and distance of the solar system is hard to grasp (Hanuscin and Park Rogers 2008). Thus, learning about the solar system in the classroom becomes a challenging task and helping students understand the notion of "scale" with models needs to be addressed. We describe one approach teachers can use to elicit students' misconceptions about the distance between planets in our solar system. Using this information, they can then address the importance of scale in scientific models.

Problems With Current Models

Numerous solar system models are created online and in kits to help students understand the position of the planets and their size in the solar system. However, rarely do these models depict the distances between planets and the Sun accurately, often leading to misconceptions (Larson 2009). Jonassen, Strobel, and Gottdenker (2005) explained that presenting students with scale-appropriate models can help them mentally formulate their own visual representations for comparing and extrapolating ideas from the system. Therefore, having students construct their own scaled scientific models has the potential of providing students with the experience necessary to meet the goals of conceptual understanding described by AAAS (Jonassen, Strobel, and Gottdenker 2005).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Addressing the Problem

The following activity is designed for upper elementary students and could take two to three days to complete. The purpose of the lesson is to help students understand that models are scaled representations, often revised as more evidence is gained, and are used to explain scientific phenomenon that cannot be directly observed (Hanuscin and Park Rogers 2008). The lesson begins with a preassessment of students' understanding of models in the form of an entrance slip. An entrance slip helps students access their prior knowledge concerning the daily lesson topic and allows teachers to understand what the students already know about the topic. A common misconception found through this preassessment is the placement of planets in relation to each other and the Sun. The activity that follows the preassessment addresses this problem.

The activity was adapted from the Utah Core Academy (2008) curriculum and modified to fit a 5E Instructional Model (Bybee 1997). The use of a 5E Model approach takes into account students' prior experiences and how those may affect their learning of the content. It also encourages the use of assessment throughout the learning experience while approaching learning from a conceptual level in which students are asked to explore then explain (Abell and Volkmann 2006).

Engage: Preassessment

To first learn what students understand about scientific models, provide each an entrance slip and ask him or her to answer the following questions: (1) What do you think makes something a model in science? (2) Why do you think scientists use models in their work? (3) How do you think scientists developed models of the solar system? (4) Draw a sketch and describe what you think a model of the solar system looks like. For students needing a little more guidance in writing responses to these questions, their entrance slip could be formatted with prompts to fill in, such as "A model is--. …

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