Moving Students toward a More Accurate View of the Solar System

By Gadbaw, Berkeley; Holveck, Susan | Science Scope, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Moving Students toward a More Accurate View of the Solar System


Gadbaw, Berkeley, Holveck, Susan, Science Scope


Many times, students are given models of the solar system that show planets in a straight line that extends from the Sun. Although they often represent the planets in glorious color, these models do not have the explanatory or predictive power called for in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States 2013). Such models can make it difficult for students to make sense of real astronomical phenomena, and may lead to misconceptions.

I was confronted with my own misconceptions and the limitations of a traditional solar system model one evening as I looked into the night sky with my husband while staying at the beach. As I faced west, I could see the rosy glow of the setting Sun, a crescent Moon, Jupiter (a planet farther from the Earth than the Sun), and Venus (a planet closer to the Earth than the Sun). I wondered, "How was it possible that all of these celestial objects could be viewed at the same time?" I could not explain it using the static models that I had learned in school. I ran inside to get some objects to create a model of the solar system that could explain what I was seeing.

This process was enlightening to me, and I realized that the model that I created answered many other questions that came to mind. The first and foremost was, "What makes the Moon a crescent and could a planet be a crescent as well?" Using the solar system model that I had created, I predicted that Venus would appear as a crescent and Jupiter would not. Looking through binoculars at the planets, I confirmed that my prediction was accurate. Unlike traditional solar system models, my model could be used to make accurate predictions and could answer new questions posed by the phenomenon I was viewing. Right then, I realized I had a great hook for the first unit I would teach this year in my middle school seventh- and eighth-grade science classes. Using this phenomenon as an anchor would bring relevance to a topic about which it is sometimes hard to develop correct conceptions (Keeley and Sneider 2012). A tough but authentic phenomenon can provide the motivation for learning the why and how of something that occurs.

This article describes how I used this phenomenon as an anchor for my space unit, which incorporated a variety of modeling and data collection activities coupled with technology. The major components of this unit included asking questions, modeling, engaging in sustained science writing, a photo journal project, using PhET simulations, analyzing galaxy images, and finally writing to defend a claim. Figure 1 provides an overview of the unit.

Asking questions about a phenomenon during modeling

Fast-forward to my classroom the first week of school. I understood the importance of setting the right tone during the first few weeks of school. I wanted my students to feel comfortable asking questions, understand that participation is expected, lose their fear of making mistakes, and experience wonder about a scientific problem. I began by telling the story of seeing the night sky phenomenon at the beach with my husband and how I had witnessed the setting Sun, crescent Moon, Jupiter, and Venus. Students listened intently as they imagined being at the coast with their own families. To steer the most know-it-all students from trying to immediately solve the problem while the others sat by and watched, I decided that the focus of my lesson would be on asking questions about the phenomenon. After passing out the materials (Figure 2), I instructed students to write down all the questions that they had on sticky notes. My one rule: No question was too dumb. If they were thinking it, someone else in the room probably was, too.

As I held my breath, the bravest students at each table began to ask questions: "What exactly is the order of the planets?" "Isn't the Sun in the middle?" Soon the room was abuzz with chatter. Students were using the materials to create models that might explain the phenomenon. …

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