Solar system distance can be a real ball
This September, I had an entire school visit the planetarium over the course of three days. The school normally sends its summer school students to the planetarium for a visit and this has created a strong tradition that is evident in the questions that get asked by the fifth graders during their visit. Many of the students were asking upper level thinking questions that may have been percolating in their minds since their last trip to the planetarium.
However, shifting from their normal 150 students during the summer to the full 400 students did have to change a little bit of the logistics.
The order of attendance of the groups was set by the school to minimize the number of buses needed to transport the students. The topics were specifically chosen so that they would add on to or expand topics covered during the summer and not overlap.
Within our state education standards we are limited in some of the topics, so I am able to make a couple of exceptions, such as covering moon phases in fifth grade instead of sixth, by modifying the vocabulary used.
The "Size of the Objects" lab
One of the lessons that I felt was very successful was the lab connected with the first grade’s Size of Objects in Space presentation. The weather was nice outside,so I set up a series of interactive stations that the students could go through. I had prepped the teachers with note cards with common questions the students may have at each station so they could be a part of the activity.
Many of the stations’ materials fit into a grocery bag that was brightly colored and easy to see on the field.
Station 1: A bag containing a standard hardball and basketball. The basketball represented the Earth and the baseball was the moon. The card at that station: predict what it would be like if the moon was the size of a golf ball. There are two ways that the students could interpret this station. Most made statements like “it would be harder to have eclipses” and “the tides wouldn’t be as strong.” Another question to them: “what other object could be used to show the size of the Earth if the moon was modeled after a golf ball.”
Station 2: A bag with another hardball and basketball situated on the basketball court. I marked the center of the court with an E for Earth and an M for the moon 8.5 meters away. Two people from each group grabbed the “Earth” and “moon” and stood on the letters. The rest of the group held hands to make a spiral from the Earth to the moon. The card in the bag reminded the students that it would take a lot of fuel to travel in a straight line from the Earth to the moon so spiraling out would be better. This station was a refresh on the Station 1, but the focus was to demonstrate to the students that the moon was far away and it is small object. Normally the kids were able to spiral out and just touch fingertips to get to the moon. A teacher’s first instinct would be use yarn or string to have the kids make the path to the moon, but they would get fixated on using the string to make a straight line. It is easier to have them make a spiral using their bodies.
Station 3: This bag has a basketball with a 3-mm bead taped to the equator. The basketball now represents the sun and the bead is the Earth. (I learned the hard way not to glue the bead to the ball as there is always at least one kid who will want to dribble the ball. I found that a couple of layers of tape worked very well to secure the bead to the equator seam.)
The note card in this bag asked if they agree that most of the mass of the solar system is within the sun.
Station 4: Using the soccer field as a giant ruler, I placed traffic cones on the field to represent the planets, using a scale of 2m:1AU with one of the goal lines as the sun. The note card for that station asked, “Predict how big the planets would be in this model: are they going to larger or smaller than a golf ball.” I labeled my traffic cones with dry erase markers with the name of the planet on the side and the scale distance on the base so that it would easy to set up quickly
Station 5: Was one of the most abstract and while the students liked it, I feel that I want to do a bit more modification to make it a better activity. It was to help the students visualize the layers within the Earth.
I used the tent anchor and string technique to mark out arcs on the sidewalk. The first chalk mark was at a radius of 127 cm for the inner core. The outer core arc was at 354 cm, and the mantle was at 642 cm. The asthenosphere was at 662 cm and the lithosphere was marked at 672 cm from the tent anchor.
The chalk labels for the layers within the planet were quickly scuffed away, so the question on the note card asking for the name of the thickest and thinnest layers was difficult after the second or third rotation.
The other thing the students had trouble grasping was that it is a cross section of the planet. I was only able to get half of circle on the sidewalk so for the students it was not as concrete as I would have liked. I had several students ask if it was parts of a crater and the teachers had to repeatedly state this was the inside of the Earth. I think if I do this again, I would find an area to put down a full circle for each layer and then use tape for the labels, like I did with the M and E from Station 2.
Station 6: How to use eclipse glasses and a Sunspotter telescope. At this station I wanted to give the kids a little experience with eclipse glasses before the total solar eclipse next August. I know that I will see many of the students during the summer school shows, but I want to give everyone a little bit of the experience. I decided to include the Sunspotter because I wanted to show the students a second safe way to observe the sun and check if we could see any sunspots.
The groups of 40 were broken into smaller teams of 6-7 students with them rotating every 5 minutes. This gave the students a chance to burn off some excess energy that built up during the planetarium show before getting them to the buses. The teachers liked this activity set because it gave the students some hands-on time with the topics we covered in the planetarium and covered a little bit of eclipse preparation.
Not every grade level presentation had labs to go with it, but they all had the eclipse preparation. I mixed it up, including journaling activities, guided math problems, and art projects. These diverse topics for activities were driven by analyzing data from the exit surveys from last summer’s groups. The teachers wanted to involve more people on the staff with the astronomy unit and bridge science into other curriculums.
This is a little preview of what is to come during the next From the Classdome; in the spring will be some strategies and suggestions for making surveys for some of your groups.