Kinesthetic Astronomy 2.0

Dating back to my years as an 8th grade earth & space science teacher, one of my favorite lessons with students has been the kinesthetic astronomy investigation from the Space Science Institute. A wonderful interactive model for students: it puts the learners front and center, pushing them to model the motions of Earth’s orbit and rotation that lead them to make connections between the patterns of change in the sky and seasons.

As an elementary science specialist, I’ve been using the “Astronomical Meaning of Day and Night” lesson for two years, and during that time I’ve seen ways to improve the lesson in an effort to squash some of the recurring challenges that I’ve been faced with while facilitating the model and to bring it into stronger alignment with Next Generation Science Standards that not only ask students to use models but to develop them as well.

Improvement #1: Fixing the East-West Mixup

At first glance this may seem all wrong, but when held by students it provides orientation for modeling Earth's motion's as they observe the sky from the North Pole (their head!)

At first glance this may seem all wrong, but when held by students it provides orientation for modeling Earth’s motion’s as they observe the sky from the North Pole (their head!)

The Kinesthetic Astronomy lesson provides E-W cutouts that teachers are told to glue to sticks that students then hold in their hands. This is all well and good when facilitating the model… until students start absent mindedly swapping the East and West sticks and incorrect rotations. To combat this I created a simple print out of North America. Students use the printout by holding it against their chest (their belts = the equator!) Labels such as the United States, Cananda, Mexico, and the oceans are labeled upside-down so that students can read them from their line of sight at the “North Pole.”


 Improvement #2: Build the Model as You Go

To setup the light bulb (sun) and celestial sphere along with the equinox/solstice labels takes time. So instead, we build the model as we go. As a teacher, I first ask students to model the motions of day and night, and the orbit of the Earth. Once these motions have been established we provide some additional context of where students are by posting “Orion” on the wall and informing students that “Orion is a constellation that can be seen high in the sky at midnight on the winter solstice.” From there students begin to piece together the location of the summer solstice and equinoxes along their orbital path before constructing explanations for why constellations like Orion can only be seen during some seasons of the year. We checked for understanding by challenging students to find their birthday on the orbital path of the earth.

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Can you find your birthday on Earth's orbital path?

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Improvement #3: Save Moon Phases for Later

Like many teachers, I have fallen prey to the sin of jamming too much content into one class session. In the past I’ve used the opportunity of having the light set up to also explore how the moon reflects like off its surface and back to Earth’s to explore the patterns of change in the moon phases. No more. This model is strong enough to deserve two or more class sessions, with one focused on day/night and rotation/orbit and entirely separate day for moon phases. This will also free up the time needed to put out and change manipulatives in the students hands as well as the riot act required to keep students from using the moon balls as make-shift drum sticks and juggling pins.

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
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