Try teaching astronomy with space science activities that help kids conceptualize size, distance, motion, and composition of objects inside and outside of our solar system. When kids study natural phenomena like shadows, they understand the universe better.
Teaching Astronomy – Earth, Moon, and Sun
The intermediate team at Ms. Sneed’s school sat in the conference room. “Today,” said Mr. Glenn, “we’re assembling fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers to talk about space science. In addition to our own standards, we’ll be looking at some additional units.” He projected the screen of his laptop onto the screen for all to see.
Space Science Evidence of Earth’s Movement
For a few moments, the teachers studied the standard on the screen:
Then Mr. Glenn continued, “Mr. Grow has pulled together some resources teaching astronomy in fifth grade.”
At this, stood up and came to the front. “Next,” he said, “we’ll deconstruct this standard. As you can see, the content comes at the end: direction of shadows, day and night, and seasonal appearance of stars.” As he spoke, he wrote the three topics on the whiteboard next to the screen.
“To understand what we should do with this standard, we need to look at the beginning. At the beginning, you will see the words ‘represent data.’ That tells us that we need to use numbers. Second, it mentions ‘graphical displays.’ In other words, kids need to graph the data. Finally, it tells us that kids need to ‘reveal patterns of daily changes.’ To me, that means that they need to draw conclusions from the data they’ve crunched.”
“All of this seems a little too high level,” Ms. Sneed interrupted.
Mr. Grow grinned. “Hang on a minute,” he said to his former mentor. “Then you’ll see how simple things in everyday life translate to data. Furthermore, the crunching and graphing we’ll do is age-appropriate.”
Next, Mr. Grow pulled up a blog post on shadows. “For the first topic, I found this set of shadow activities.”
As he scrolled through the post, he discussed each image. “You may recognize the first space science activity. After all, our fourth graders have done this for years. On a sunny day, students draw one another’s changing shadows with sidewalk chalk. However, they also measure the shadows’ lengths and direction. Then they record it in a table. Afterward, they draw conclusions about the Sun’s apparent motion.”
“Does this mean that fifth grade will take our fun shadows activity?” asked another fourth grade teacher.
Again, Mr. Grow grinned. “No, I was thinking that you could keep it. Of course, we’d expect that you’d add the data part.”
The fourth grade teachers looked appeased. Therefore, Mr. Grow moved on. “Second, kids explore year-long changes in shadows. In this picture, you see how a building casts a shadow. Our fifth graders will study the shadow of our school building each month to consider how the position of the Sun changes with the seasons.”
“Can sixth grade have the bunny ears?” asked Mrs. Smith. Everyone laughed
“Sorry, fifth grade will keep that,” Mr. Grow responded with a wink. “That part is mainly for fun.”
Movement of Stars in the Sky
Next, Mr. Grow clicked over to a post on the seasonal appearance of constellations. “In this space science activity, kids look to the sky. Actually, they build a model of constellations, as shown. Then they place paper representations of the Sun and Earth in the middle. Finally, they move the Earth around the Sun. At this point, they look at the zodiac constellations visible on the dark side of our planet in each season.”
“I get it,” said Mrs. Smith. “More evidence of the rotation and revolution of Earth when teaching astronomy.”
Mr. Grow nodded.
Patterns of Day and Night
Lastly, Mr. Grow displayed a post on day and night. “The last set of space science activities includes more number patterns. Using these daylight tables, kids calculate elapsed time to find length of daylight in December. Specifically they analyze two locations: Chicago, USA, and Tasmania, Australia. As you already know, up until the solstice, daylight in Chicago shrinks and in Tasmania grows. Then, after the solstice, the opposite occurs.”
“What a great way for kids to practice elapsed time,” said Mr. Glenn. “This way, we can integrate science and math.”
“That’s it,” said Mr. Grow. “Three ways to explore movement of the Earth through natural phenomena.”
Space Science and the Earth-Sun-Moon System
“Thanks so much,” said Mr. Glenn. “Next, Mrs. Smith will talk about space science in sixth grade.”
Taking his prompt, Ms. Smith now took control of the laptop and projector.
“The middle school standard NGSS MS-ESS1-1 extends these concepts.” As she displayed the standard, the other teachers studied it.
Develop and use a model of the Earth-Sun-Moon system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, and seasons.
“Again, the topics come at the end of the standard: lunar phases, eclipses, seasons.” As she spoke, she wrote them on the whiteboard.
“This time, kids develop and use models to describe patterns.”
Mrs. Smith pulled out a globe. “I’d like to address seasons first. My model of choice is a globe. To teach Earth’s tilt, I pull it out three times each year: the autumnal equinox, which occurs in September for us; the December solstice; and the vernal, or spring, equinox in March. Each time, I talk to my kids about Earth’s tilt and the seasons. During my talk, the student in the center of the class becomes the Sun. As I teach, I walk around the room, making the Earth revolve around the Sun.
“We talk about where the Sun’s rays shine directly. Of course, this opens discussion about the Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and climate zones. In my experience, this lecture – given three times – deepens students’ understanding. At those times, I do not require any seasons assignments or assessments. That comes later.”
“More teaching throughout the year,” Mr. Grow commented. “Effective.”
Phases of the Moon, Eclipses, and Tides
“To study lunar phases, eclipses, and even tides,” Mrs. Smith continued, “kids build their own Earth-Moon-Sun models, as shown here.”
She pulled out a similar model, which she had constructed. “Here,” she said, “let me show you.”
Over the next few minutes, the sixth grade teacher showed teachers how to manipulate the model to teach relative motion of the three celestial bodies. In addition, she expertly illustrated phases of the moon, lunar eclipses, and solar eclipses. With the addition of the hydrosphere around the Earth tides were illustrated.
Space Science Activities – The Solar System
Mr. Glenn once again took the reins. “In my humble opinion,” he began, “the space science standards don’t do justice to objects in our solar system. I’d like each grade level to take one of these activities. That way, our kids will be more knowledgeable about our closest neighbors in space.”
Objects in the Solar System
First, he pulled up a simple set of cards with information on objects in the solar system. “For example,” he said, “fourth graders might learn about the Sun, inner and outer planets, moons, comets, asteroids, etc. After comparing, contrasting, and graphing, they’ll get a better sense of objects in our system.”
The fourth grade teachers looked at each other and nodded.
Solar System Models
“For fifth grade space science, kids could scaffold to size, distance, and relative motion of objects in our solar system.” He pulled up a resource from Teachers pay Teachers. “I found this set of solar system models. Not only do kids build models, they also act them out. After that, they critique other models. What do you say, fifth grade teachers?”
Again, the team nodded.
More Astronomy Activities
Space Science Activities About Technology & Discovery – Astronomy Over Time
“Finally, in sixth grade, kids could take a historical approach. In this set of space science technology and discovery activities, kids create a timeline, compare technological advancements, and make connections between discoveries and available technology.”
“This sounds great,” said Mrs. Smith. “Kids will be applying skills and using critical thinking. Not only that, they’ll become literate in space history.”
“This would also be a great time to teach kids about apparent magnitude of stars,” Mr. Glenn added. “You could use that simple flashlight activity to show them how stars that are closer seem bigger and brighter.”
Enjoy Teaching Astronomy
As Mr. Glenn turned off the projector, the teachers sighed. Sure, it was a lot to take in. But as they chatted, they agreed. Planning together built collegiality and improved curriculum. Furthermore, teaching astronomy with focused space science activities like these would increase student engagement.