The Solar System

In this example, students engage in an inquiry activity that includes both science and mathematics providing prerequisite knowledge for constructing physical models. Ms. B. begins by asking students what they already know about the solar system and maintains their interest by pointing out that some science and technology that they accept as ordinary have not always existed. In a careful sequence, each lesson in the inquiry builds on previous lessons. Students observe stars for a period of time, discuss patterns they observe, and seek confirmation of the patterns through additional observations. Students use manipulatives such as globes, rulers, and protractors to develop understanding. Mathematics is integral to this inquiry, so Ms. B has worked with the mathematics instructor to ensure coordination.

[This example highlights some elements of Teaching Standards A, B, D and E; 5–8 Content Standards A, B, F, and G, as well as Unifying Concepts and Processes; and Program Standards A, B, C, and D.]

Ms. B. was beginning the study of the solar system with the eighth grade class. In preparation for building models of the solar system, she wanted the students to estimate the circumference of the earth. The activity was designed to allow students to think and act like astronomers 500 years ago. She had spent some time with the mathematics teacher in order to coordinate part of the study with him. In fact, some of the science work would actually take place in the math class.

Ms. B. set the stage by reviewing what the students already knew about the solar system, especially about the earth, sun, and moon. Then they talked briefly about building models and determined that to make a scale model they would have to know how big each object in the solar system was and also the distances between them. Ms. B. asked whether they knew these facts about the sun, moon and earth. Someone said they could look it up. But Ms. B. said that although they could get the answer this way, instead they were going to try to find out for themselves, similar to the way astronomers learned new things.

She asked the students how they thought the circumference of the earth was measured. Someone said by measuring on a map. Someone else said by flying around it keeping track of the distance. Ms. B. told them, however, that Columbus had an approximate, but limited, idea of how big the earth was before anyone had gone around it. She said they were going to determine the circumference of the earth using the North Star. Ms. B. gave each student a diagram of the North Star and the stars of the Big and Little Dipper, drawn to scale. The stars were oriented the way they would be looking due north at about 8:00 p.m. in their town. She directed the students to observe and make sketches of the positions of the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and the North Star at dark and at least two hours later.

Several days later students compared notes on the stars. Almost everyone had found them, many for the first time. When they compared their observations, everyone had seen the stars move, but most students noticed that the North Star seemed to stay in the same place. They agreed that everyone should observe one more time that

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