Earth and Space Science

Misconception about Winter and Sun Distance

Tue Dec 21, 2010 10:54 AM

If your are talking to your students about the lunar eclipse and also the winter solstice you might find this clip from MSBC interesting

Matt Lauer had some difficulty understanding the eclipse phenomenon and earth-sun distance as Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse explained it on the Today Show.

How common is the misconception about the Earth's distance from the Sun being the reason for seasons? How would you help this commentator understand reasons for seasons ?

Arlene JL

Arlene Jurewicz-Leighton
Arlene Jurewicz Leighton
41745 Activity Points

Tue Dec 21, 2010 10:39 PM

Hi Arlene,
Your thoughts and questions caused me to stop and think of the misconceptions that not only my students, but many fellow teachers and parents have on moon phases, eclipse and orbits!

Last school year I was shocked when my group of middle schoolers were having a conversation on Earth's moon. The young lady stated that when there is no visual moon observed, it is because clouds are in the way. Several students began inquired and asked her to give further explanation. She ended up explaining that the moon had it's own source of light, similar to the sun. The moon's shape appeared to change dependent on the amount of moon cover.

Since that moment I am constantly searching, teaching, modeling, viewing and acting out the moon phases, planet orbits and rotations.

Your reflections led me to NSTA Learning Center's advanced search function. I thought immediately of who better than NASA to give educators the resources to answer and explain these misconceptions?

I went to NSTA's Learning Center Welcome Page and half way down found and clicked on "advanced search." I typed "NASA Eclipse" in the prompt for Keyword.

Fourteen resources were immediately displayed, with 12 of them being outside weblinks that have been reviewed by NASA. There was a mixture of elementary, middle and high school sites and support ranging from content knowledge to interactive student sites.

I am thrilled that NSTA has partnered with NASA and other organizations. I have found that hours of reviewing and searching for resources is minimized when I utilize NSTA's Advanced Search function.

Now the time I've saved can be spent practicing the simulations! LOL


Alyce Dalzell
Alyce Dalzell
64070 Activity Points

Wed Dec 22, 2010 7:22 AM

One of the things that I find both challenging and exciting about teaching astronomy and related concepts is that often things are not as they seem! For example, it really does appear to us that the sun moves across the sky. As a matter of fact, that observation was the foundation for the geocentric centered model of the solar system that was widely accepted until the 1600s. The same is true for people observing that being in the sun's light makes us feel warmer, and then assuming that we are closer to the sun in the summer than in the winter. I do need to offer the students, and adults as well, more than one example or explanation to have them grasp that this is not so. By using a baseball and a marble, I have students model where they think the Sun and Earth are located during all four seasons. Then we move on to using a globe and a light source, and discuss the Earth's access and such. We move on to looking at diagrams of the Earth's orbit and I point out the misconception often shown in textbooks and diagrams that has the Earth taking a highly elliptical path around the sun. We need to address this misconception first, and discuss the actual orbit that Earth follows is only slightly elongated.

Dorian Janney
Dorian Janney
10465 Activity Points

Thu Dec 23, 2010 4:59 PM

You asked the following questions"
How common is the misconception about the Earth's distance from the Sun being the reason for seasons? This misconception is very popular. I can understand this. There are so many everyday example that contradict this. If you move closer to a heat source (fire place or an electric heater) you feel warmer. Hence the association with distance and the knowledge that the sun is a ball of energy enhances this misconception.
How would you help this commentator understand reasons for seasons ?
This is a harder problem. There are lots of good information type explanations for this alternative conception but that doesn't always work. You can use the streaming audio from NASA. The sites address is:
Let students listen and then ask them what they heard.

Adah Stock
Adah Stock
101470 Activity Points

Mon Dec 27, 2010 10:58 AM

Hi Dorian and Adah,

Modeling where the earth is around the sun over a years time and showing them the misconceptions inherent in textbook diagrams are key. It seems 'common sense' that you would feel something warmer the closer you are to the heat source.

This is a 'hot topic' in one of my courses as the thought that we are closer to the Sun in the summer is such a common misconception. One of the other things students have issues with is scale. As Dorian pointed out the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is not on such an elliptical path that the distance at any point from Earth to Sun would not be a factor in our seasons or how warm the Earth.

There is some great suggestions for looking at Visualizing the Earth and Moon Relationships via Scaled Drawings which could be extended to include Sun Earth Moon relationships and beyond.

"[i]The concept of scaling can be extended beyond
and across grade levels to help students build further
understanding of space phenomena. Younger grades
may use this activity to include initial explorations
about the scale sizes of the Moon and Earth. Older
students may include the Sun to help gain a better
understanding of the Earth-Moon-Sun relationships.
Students who possess a better understanding of these
three celestial objects may be better able to understand
concepts of seasonality and orbital mechanics. Finally,
more mathematically advanced and older students can
apply this activity to more distant solar system objects
and properties of light propagation and planetary interaction,
as scaled distances are central to understanding
properties of light behavior in space."[/i]

Arlene Jurewicz-Leighton
Arlene Jurewicz Leighton
41745 Activity Points

Mon Dec 27, 2010 3:49 PM

I love teaching lunar phases and the solar system, although I must admit, it is not a high confidence content area for me as a teacher. :-) Yet, what I don't know, I am willing to learn with my students. The NSTA and NASA are great resources for activities to teach these concepts hands-on and minds-on.

Here are some ideas I have found, and some of them I have used in my classroom.

First, I have uploaded a NSTA journal article on space science and scale. This activity will help students gain an understanding on why there are not solar or lunar eclipses every month.

And here is an activity and poster sponsored by NASA: or

I completed an activity from NASA that I learned at a workshop at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, but I am unable to locate the lesson on the NASA website. If anyone locates it, please post it. I will try to describe it, and if you have any questions, please ask. I have taught A.U. and relative distances in our solar system to/with my students using a copied dollar bill and register machine tape. Students learn fractions while determining the distances of items within our solar system using a dollar as one A.U. For example, the Earth is 1 A.U. from the Sun. Students mark the end of their tape with a "Sun" and measure one dollar bill from the Sun to place Earth. Students determine what fraction or multiple of an A.U. the other planets etc...are from the Sun and map them on the register tape. I have the students work in groups since it will require a great length of measure of tape to complete. Students are awed by the distances they create on the tape. However, the misconceptions - or the where this is a "poor model" points - need to also be addressed - such as the planets are not in a straight line in their orbits.

I have also used this activity with my students with great success:

However, I used wiffle golf balls that have been marker-painted half black. I have the students always hold the wiffle-ball moon on a pencil so that the "light" or white side of the ball is always facing the Sun or central location in the room. It is really easy to do a room check to make sure all wiffle ball/moons are being held correctly. I do not worry about using real light, but ask the students to imagine that a set location is the Sun, and we even describe what the other side of our Earth-head sees when looking away from the Sun... However, it can be done with a light source - I just never had enough light sources or a small enough class to consider doing it that way. This activity really helped my students "get it."

Just a few suggestions.

Oh, and I had a college Earth science teacher (adjunct) tell me that the Earth is closer to the Sun during the even at the college level, mis-information is being provided.


Susanne Hokkanen
Susanne Hokkanen
79040 Activity Points

Fri Jan 21, 2011 12:20 AM

I came across your post and thought it was such an interesting note. I know there are many misconceptions regarding winter and the suns distance, as well as season misconceptions. These are fairly common misconceptions made by children and adults. This misconception is one which was introduced in my college Science Methods class. I think part of the problem is that as children, we did not fully grasp the concept. I found a website which states some of the common misconceptions made by children. This has lesson plan ideas and other information that would be helpful. This website also follows with questions to discuss and diagrams to follow. I thought this site might be helpful for students and adults. It offers visualizations of the earth traveling around the sun as well. This is the website:

Kelly Roland
Kelly Roland
270 Activity Points

Thu Jan 27, 2011 10:44 AM

Thank you for your post, Kelly. Your URL site had links to the Bad Astronomy site and The Private Universe site, both of which point out several astronomy misconceptions.
One that I was surprised to learn about was written up in a 2003 NSTA journal called Moon Misconceptions. It is an excellent resource for providing pedagogical background on how to change how we teach in order to change students' misconceptions. The authors cite Posner's research: 3-step teaching strategy to overturn a misconception - 1. identify the misconception 2. overturn the misconception 3. then replace it with a scientific conception. It is a very informative article! It helps drive home the importance of finding out what your students know, think they know, or don't know before you begin teaching content. I am attaching the article here. What are some strategies you have found to help students unlearn what they learned incorrectly?

Carolyn Mohr
Carolyn Mohr
79588 Activity Points

Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:03 PM

There are some things in science that no matter how well we teach, people have a very difficult time internalizing and will revert to the misconception. Several years ago there was a famous video made of how many people had science misconceptions such as this. They ran around interviewing Harvard students--many who were actually science majors--and found many of them did not know the reason for seasons or why we had night/day.

As mentioned above, I have the students do the old ball (I use styrofoam) on a pencil with light source to see the tilt and where the most light concentration occurs modeling the seasonal changes. The students work through a series of questions. I find the concept works best with an acetate grid over the light source so they can actually see an intensity of light change on the ball as it tilts. I also have them poke a pin in the ball to see what happens with shadows in the seasons as most of them think our shadow will be longer in summer time. They can usually parrot back the correct answer but I am afraid that in a few years they will revert back to the misconception!

Nancy Bort
Nancy Bort
7025 Activity Points

Thu Jan 27, 2011 6:20 PM

How strange I was just having a conversation with some students about this the other day. I even asked them to draw out what they were explaining and boy did they have some misconceptions. I am not sure if we can wait for the end of the year when Astronomy is in our scope and sequence. Thanks for links above that were posted these will be helpful to share with students as they come up with the questions. I think its best to help them right as they are asking the questions instead of waiting until it is part of the plan. Sometimes this is the most authentic learning process for them...when they want to learn about it!

Misty Richmond
Misty Richmond
2410 Activity Points

Fri Jan 28, 2011 3:10 PM

I think it is extremely important to be aware of common misconceptions when teaching science. I remember watching "A Private Universe" in grad school and being shocked by it. I mention the study to my students when teaching about the seasons so that they are aware of some of the misconceptions associated with the seasons. I also try to have the students think about and explain why the distance cannot have much of an impact on the seasons on Earth. The best tool I have found to teach about the seasons is a software program called RSISeasons. I have found it to be a really good demonstration tool because it allows you to manipulate the tilt of the Earth (along with many other properties), so the students can see that when the tilt is set to zero the temperature does not vary much throughout the year. A useful web site that is similar is: I like my software program more than this web site but I use the web site because the students can manipulate the tilt themselves on their own computer as opposed to sitting and watching me run the program from my computer.

Lisa Coughlin
Lisa Coughlin
1070 Activity Points

Fri Jan 28, 2011 3:27 PM

Arlene, Adah and Group

I love showing my kids the following clip Harvard Science Program My students find it empowering that they are smarter than Harvard students at the end of one lecture. I tell my students, you will know something a Harvard graduate does not, they always get a chuckle.

Elizabeth Dalzell-Wagers
Elizabeth Dalzell
9935 Activity Points

Thu Apr 07, 2011 4:02 PM

Hi Liz and thread participants,
The April 2011 issue of The Science Teacher has a great article with a new approach to helping students face and change their misconceptions about the reason for the seasons. I just read it and wrote a review about it. The author's approach is inquiry-based and uses Internet data collection and analysis. I highly recommend it as a new approach to an old problem.
The Science Teacher journal:
The Reason for the Seasons

Carolyn Mohr
Carolyn Mohr
79588 Activity Points

Sat Apr 09, 2011 3:32 PM

Thanks all for the great links and activities! One of my graduate school teachers showed our class the video of Harvard graduates and it really made an impression on me. I think that seeing something like that has a much longer lasting effect than simply telling students their preconceptions are incorrect. In another of my classes, we dressed as the planets and moved around the room as if we were orbiting the sun. The movement and visual and engaging aspects really helped us understand and remember what was really going on.

Alsasha Gangloff
Alsasha Gangloff
270 Activity Points

Post Reply

Forum content is subject to the same rules as NSTA List Serves. Rules and disclaimers