Including Students in a Model of the Earth, Moon, and Sun System

Elysa Corin and Todd Boyette
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Including Students presents a single, kinesthetic model that can be used to explain such varied concepts as rotation, revolution, phases of the Moon and seasons. The outlined activities are meant to be used throughout an entire Astronomy unit.  In fact, the authors caution that this collection of activities cannot be completed in one classroom period. Because the activities increase in complexity, the authors recommend that teachers take their time in introducing the model.  Then, students will be comfortable in modifying it to explore the more complex concepts. The required materials are easily obtainable and relatively inexpensive. The authors have taken great pains to address misconceptions and to provide questions that teachers can use to probe students' prior knowledge.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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Performance Expectations

MS-ESS1-1 Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.

Clarification Statement: Examples of models can be physical, graphical, or conceptual.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Including Students presents a kinesthetic model that uses a lamp, students or globes, and Styrofoam balls to represent the Sun, Earth and Moon, respectively. The outlined activities cover lunar phases and seasons; however, the authors note that, with modifications designed by teachers and students, the model could be used to represent other scientific phenomena such as eclipses and rising/setting times of lunar phases. Students do not develop the initial model from scratch; rather, they learn to use the described model in order to make predictions and construct explanations. Throughout the activities, students are encouraged to discuss the model's limitations with an eye to improvement.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Throughout the activities, the authors present multiple opportunities for students to use a model to construct explanations about such scientific phenomena as lunar phases and seasons. The authors lean towards classroom discussion to check understanding; to monitor individual understanding, teachers may wish to design prompts for students to discuss in their journals/notebooks. For example, students might be asked to describe the necessary geometry for viewing the various phases of the Moon from Earth or they might be tasked with explaining how Earth’s tilt affects the duration of sunlight received at different geographic locations. This will give students the added advantage of recalling their explanations when returning to the model at a later date.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Part 3: Moon phases uses a model to explain how the Moon's revolution around Earth results in our observance of phases. In this activity, students use their own heads and Styrofoam balls to represent the Earth and Moon, respectively. By revolving the ball around their heads, students will be able to note illuminated differences in its appearance. Using this information, students can then construct an explanation for lunar phases.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Part 4: Seasons presents an elegant model to investigate how the tilt of the Earth leads to seasons. Using a globe and two nails, students will see how the duration of sunlight received by the Earth on any given day may differ between the two hemispheres. In particular, students will be able to qualitatively measure the hours of sunlight received on both the equinoxes and solstices. This information will assist students in understanding why seasons occur.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
By working through the model, students will soon understand that the Moon's repetitive orbit around Earth, coupled with our changing viewpoint, results in the different phases of the Moon that we view over the course of a month. Students may initially need help in determining the location of the terminator, but once they accomplish this, they will easily identify the different phases. In Part 4: Seasons, students utilize Earth's tilt and the cyclical nature of its revolution to explain how differences in sunlight duration and intensity result in seasons.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Corin and Boyette have taken great care to align their activities to the three dimensional structure of the Next Generation Science Standards. In their paper, the authors identify the Performance Expectation, Practices, Core Idea and Crosscutting Concepts applicable to their work and make constant references to them throughout the paper. As noted earlier, the model only pertains to the portion of the Performance Expectation dealing with phases of the Moon and seasons. However, with teacher/student suggestions, the model could easily be extended to investigate eclipses.

  • Instructional Supports: Corin and Boyette have provided teachers with a simple but elegant model to engage students in a multi-level investigation of solar system phenomena. Throughout their paper, the authors have seamlessly intertwined Practices and Crosscutting Concepts to support the Performance Expectation. The model is grade-appropriate and, for the most part, scientifically accurate. Any shortcomings of the model are thoroughly discussed. No suggestions have been provided to support struggling learners. In such situations, teachers may want to pair up students for Parts 3 and 4 of the model. The authors do refer to extensions for students who have already met the Performance Expectation. These extensions can be found at:

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Although the authors have interspersed the activities with probing questions for teachers to use, aligned rubrics and scoring guidelines are missing. Teachers can assess understanding through anecdotal observations or by designing writing prompts for students to discuss in their journals/lab notebooks. Several suggestions for prompts are included in the Practices section of this review.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: All activities described in the article are kinesthetic.