Using Inquiry to Learn Astronomy

8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have been studying astronomy, especially the Solar System, over the past month. This is the focus of the Earth Science unit in the 8th Grade Science curriculum. The main ideas that students have been learning involve the motions of the Earth and Moon in relation to each other and the Sun. Topics include the Moon’s phases, the Earth’s seasons, solar and lunar eclipses, and oceanic tides on Earth. I have taught these topics in the past, and while I found them relatively simple as a teacher, I learned that most students find them confusing and difficult to learn. Ms. Garavel and I decided to plan the unit differently this time–instead of presenting the topics in text or visual demonstrations, we used an inquiry approach from the start. To begin with, I had the students start two one-month lab experiments: one was to observe the Sun for sunspots each day to see if the Sun showed rotation, and the other lab was to observe the Moon each day to see how its phases and position in the sky changed.

To do the sunspot lab, the students made a simple paper screen onto which they could project the Sun’s image using our Orion Observer 60mm refractor telescopes–the students also had to pass a safety quiz on telescope use, emphasizing that they never look directly at the Sun, before the lab started. The lab was interesting, as we saw one sunspot on the first day near the edge of the Sun, then it disappeared the next day as it seemed to rotate out of view. We then entered a three-week spell where the Sun was clean of any spots. We learned that NASA confirmed that the Sun had just gone through an eleven-year low for number of sunspots. However, as the lab ended, we went out one day last week and saw five sunspots, so we are extending it to see how they change. All of this generated a lot of interest and discussion, so I consider the lab a success. Here are photos of the students making observations, and a photo of one of the recent images showing several sunspots:

Sunspots 2Sunspots 3Sunspots

The Moon observation lab was also interesting, as I learned at the beginning that most students had little idea how the Moon moved through the sky or progressed through its phases. By the end of the lab, the students had seen a complete lunar cycle, plus we did several classroom activities where each crew (student group) had to act out where the Sun, Earth, and Moon were in position relative to one another using models or their bodies as models. These short skits allowed students to act out the motions in front of one another, then critique them if there were any errors–and they had fun acting and moving around. We did similar skits and discussions to understand eclipses and tides. As the students began each topic, I also assigned the reading of online articles by NASA and NOAA for homework to provide more background and information about each topic.

In addition to these two labs, we also discussed how the stars and planets progress through the Earth’s sky. We had two observation nights where students came back to school after dark and took out the telescopes to observe the night sky. We discussed the motions and acted out the way the stars of the zodiac change over the year by having a circle of twelve students (one for each zodiac constellation) surrounding a central student (the Sun) with an orbiting student (the Earth). Finally, I took the Starry Night software that came with our Orion telescopes and loaded it on our STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, turning them into sky simulators. The software allows the students to bring up any date and time on any location on Earth, or to move off the Earth, and to see how the sky appears. You can also speed up the movement to see how the Moon, planets, stars, etc. move over the course of days and weeks in the night sky. All of these activities were done in an inquiry manner where students began by hypothesizing what they expected to see, observing what actually happened, then analyzing where they were correct or incorrect and drawing conclusions. Here are photos of the students using Starry Night software:


All of this inquiry activity ended with two major assessments. First the students took a unit test, then they took the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) in Science. Their performance on the unit test and their feedback on the CMT (scores come out later) both showed they had a good understanding of the astronomy topics we had studied. We will continue to do more astronomy through the end of the school year, and Ms. Garavel and I plan to make the students even more proficient as amateur astronomers.

Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s