Earth-Moon-Sun Dynamics

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MUSE | Earth-Moon-Sun Dynamics

Moon-Sun-Venus photographA fundamental goal of scientists is to explain natural phenomena Ė to produce explanatory models that can account for patterns observed in the natural world. People have been observing patterns in the cosmos for thousands of years, but only in the past few centuries have scientists formulated a model that can account for such diverse patterns as moon phases, the frequency and duration of lunar and solar eclipses, and seasonal fluctuations in day length or the sunís apparent path in the sky. In the first nine-week module of our integrated science course, students learn how the Earth, Moon, and Sun move relative to one another and use their knowledge of these bodies and their motions to account for a variety of celestial phenomena.

There is considerable power in using the familiar as a starting point to explore the unfamiliar. In our integrated science course for ninth grade students, we begin with a nine-week module during which students explore the causes of familiar phenomena (sunrise and sunset direction, moon face, phases of the moon, eclipses, and seasonal changes) and construct, communicate, and defend their explanations to their peers.

Throughout this module, students encounter data (some of which they collect themselves) from which they must recognize patterns and pose tractable questions. Next, they work in small teams to create an Earth-Moon-Sun Dynamics (EMS) model that can account for their data. Finally, they defend their model to their peers, frequently making use of three-dimensional objects and light sources to re-create the phenomenon in question.

students explaining data in a classroomThe students carry out their work in a classroom environment that closely resembles a "real" scientific community: students are required to offer evidence in support of claims and be critical of claims made by classmates. Our research suggests that these students come to a rich understanding of the underlying causes of familiar phenomena and the ways in which scientists build and use models. Many of the learning outcomes within this curriculum are non-traditional: that is, they focus on students’ developing skills related to doing scientific inquiry and understandings about such inquiry rather than only on students' aquisition of "scientific facts." Such learning goals require teachers to create classrooms in which students regularly interact with one another to share and critique ideas -- and to define a set of expected behaviors ("norms") that will lead to constructive student discussions. Assessment of student achievement of such learning outcomes necessarily involves non-traditional approaches as well. It is important in the day-to-day functioning of the classroom that teachers employ assessment strategies to monitor students’ use of norms as well as their achievement of learning outcomes related to modeling, argumentation, and understanding about the nature of scientific practice.