Science Shorts: Astronomies of Scaleby: Bruce Larson

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Astronomical scale is a difficult concept for elementary students to grasp when they begin studying the solar system. A school yard solar system model gives students a tangible experience of astronomical distances. After determining the distances between planets and the Sun, students decode a mystery that requires them to travel from planet to planet. The physical component of this gives students a real appreciation for how “close” the inner planets are compared with the cold and distant outer ones.

  • Elementary
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Reviews (5)
  • on Thu Dec 01, 2016 12:13 PM

This is a great activity! It's a great way to model and reinforce the concept of the size of the solar system. It's also a great way to keep students engaged and doing math and science. How fun for kids to be able to be outside, collecting data (which isn't a fun thing to do for them) and really beginning to understand the size of the solar system.

Jennifer Basalari
Jennifer Basalari

  • on Wed Jan 18, 2012 9:44 PM

This article showed how third and fourth graders explored distances on the school grounds in order to gain a better understanding of the astronomical distances between inner and outer planets. Mathematically they practiced their division skills as they created metric scale models of themselves and the solar system. I liked how the author placed students into pairs to research a planet and do activities that would mimic the work of real scientists. Once students gathered important facts about their assigned planet, they went outside, found the Sun (the teacher), and marked off the distance from the Sun to their planet station. As soon as all stations were ‘manned’, a member of each team set off to gather clues from other planets until each team made a round trip. After all the clues had been collected, students assembled their data to decode a secret message. As a team member traveled from one planet to another, the travel time was recorded. Later teams compared time and distances. This connection of physically running between stations and keeping time measurements helped the students better understand the scale of space/time as they considered astronomical distances. Teachers wanting to replicate this lesson will need access to a large outdoor space, a trundle wheel and stop watches.

Carolyn M  (Buffalo Grove, IL)
Carolyn M (Buffalo Grove, IL)

  • on Thu Aug 04, 2011 12:40 PM

This is not an easy concept even for middle school students. This activity attempts to help students understand relative distances between inner and outer planets using the school playground. It also helps student to understand differences in the time required to travel to planets varies greatly and determines our ability to use them in the future as travel and communication bases. The math is a bit difficult for upper elementary students. There is a short math extension using toys that might help students understand the term “relative sizes and scaling sizes.” I think at this level using a calculator might be an advantage to reducing math frustration and fostering the concept of relative scale.

Adah  (San Antonio, TX)
Adah (San Antonio, TX)

  • on Thu Mar 24, 2011 10:36 AM

This article outline a 5E activity that enables young students to visualize astronomical distances in a scaled model. While this activity could certainly stand alone, it could be done in combine with the Planet Walk activity found in the September 2008 issue of Science and Children which can be found at this link :

Maureen Stover  (Seaside, CA)
Maureen Stover (Seaside, CA)

  • on Wed Oct 13, 2010 11:00 PM

I like that this activity is written in the 5E instructional model. It attempts to get students thinking about distance in space from the perspective of traveling to other planets. Unfortunately, the link to the page with part of the instructions to do the activity is no longer valid, so the teacher would have to improvise.

Kate Geer  (Louisville, CO)
Kate Geer (Louisville, CO)

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