Exploring Lunar and Solar Eclipses via a 3-D Modeling Design Task

Rommel J. Miranda, Brian R. Kruse, Ronald S. Hermann
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Article , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
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.



Exploring Lunar and Solar Eclipses via a 3-D Modeling Design Task is a detailed lesson plan published in the October 2016 issue of NSTA’s Science Scope journal.  It is free to NSTA members but can be purchased for a nominal fee by non-members.  The article outlines a classroom activity in which students investigate solar and lunar eclipses by developing a model using simple, inexpensive materials.  The authors integrate the 7-E learning cycle model with the KLEW instructional teaching strategy to provide students with an opportunity to construct models of eclipses using prior knowledge of solar system scale and observable patterns of the Sun-Earth-Moon.  The authors estimate that the entire lesson plan could be completed in 3 hours which may be optimistic in an heterogeneously grouped middle school classroom. Note:  NSTA members can search for the lesson using either title or date at: http://www.nsta.org/middleschool/

Intended Audience

- none -
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

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
This lesson plan deals specifically with the element of the Performance Expectation concerning eclipses. In this lesson, students are not given specific written instructions to guide them in constructing a model; however, they are provided with a limited group of materials that would only work in one specific configuration. Teachers may consider adding in additional materials in order to provide a more challenging experience. In order to achieve the Performance Expectation, teachers can utilize the vetted materials on lunar phases and seasons which can be found on the Middle School: Space Systems page of NSTA’s NGSS Hub.

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
In this lesson, students are not given specific written instructions to guide them in developing their models of lunar eclipses; however, the materials provided to the students do give clues to the intended setup. Thus, students should intuit that the 1 inch polystyrene ball should be used to represent the Earth and the smaller, plastic bead would represent the Moon. Although the activity’s guiding question asks students to make a 3-D physical scale model of the Earth-Sun-Moon to recreate lunar eclipses, teachers should inform students that only the Earth and Moon need to be scalar in both size and distance. As part of the whole class discussion which follows the activity, teachers may want to ask why the Sun was not part of the scalar requirements. If students struggle to complete the activity, teachers may need to review the 4:1 ratio of Moon to Earth diameters and the 30 Earth diameter distance between the Earth and Moon. In the case of solar eclipses, the authors do not restrict students to using the 3-D model developed for lunar eclipses; however, if students use their heads to represent the Earth, they should recognize that their model may no longer be to scale. Note: Figures 1 and 2, as presented in the article, are a cause for concern. In both illustrations, the Earth and Moon are too far out of alignment to depict an eclipse.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This lesson plan deals exclusively with the specific element of the Disciplinary Core Idea concerning eclipses. In the activity, students are tasked with modeling both solar and lunar eclipses using simple, readily available materials. Students will be modeling all types of eclipses: total and partial lunar eclipses and total, partial and annular eclipses. Students should easily model total solar and lunar eclipses, but, because of the linear nature of the model (clamping beads onto a meter stick), students may have difficulties re-creating partial eclipses. Teachers should direct students to revisit their illustrations to check the geometry for partial eclipses. In the case of modeling an annular eclipse, teachers should be aware that the scalar attributes may be compromised.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In this lesson plan, the Earth and the Moon can be properly scaled in terms of both size and distance; however, as in most classroom models of the Sun-Earth-Moon, the Sun cannot be. Thus, teachers should be prepared to discuss the limitations of the model (i.e scaling the Sun to fit into the model) with students. Teachers should note that any choice of illumination to represent the Sun has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of scale. Maglites shine in all directions but are small and must be placed close to the Earth or Moon to cast shadows. Large flashlights provide more light but only shine in one direction, thus creating a misconception. Finally, an unshaded light bulb provides the most light but could be problematic in a middle school classroom. Teachers will have to decide what light source makes the most sense for their classroom. In the course of creating a model of a solar eclipse, the authors note that several groups used student’s heads to represent the Earth. This may be useful in creating a working model, but it will nullify the scalar concept. In addition, in order to see the solar eclipse, students would look directly into the light source, creating a safety concern.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: In this lesson, students are tasked with designing a model of the Sun-Earth-Moon system for both lunar and solar eclipses. The lesson plan supports students in making sense of eclipses while providing opportunities to delve into and develop specific portions of the Scientific Practices (model building), Disciplinary Core Idea (eclipses) and Cross Cutting Concept (patterns and scale). The lesson is grade appropriate for middle school students.

  • Instructional Supports: Exploring Solar and Lunar Eclipses… provides scientifically accurate and grade-appropriate information while also making note of the shortcomings of the model (i.e. the inability to scale both the size and distance for the Sun). The activity is an authentic experience in which students can explore the phenomena of eclipses in a hands-on approach. The authors do not provide any hints on differentiation; however, they do include some ideas on how to extend the lesson for those students who have achieved the Performance Expectation.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: As part of the online supplemental materials , the authors provide an open-inquiry template where students can record observations and make predictions; however, the worksheet does not challenge students to explain and justify their models. In order to monitor student progress, teachers will either observe the completed models and/or design in-depth questions which allow students to display their mastery of the concept. The lesson lacks formative assessments and scoring guidance is limited to a generic rubric provided in the online supplemental materials. The task is accessible and unbiased, but support will be needed for students who have difficulty with math.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The lesson plan is a hands on classroom activity. Additional resources and online supplemental activities are noted at the end of the article.