Stan and David were fascinated with the science unit in their 5th-grade class, which the teacher called “Where is the Moon tonight?” They had read books about earth and space, the sun and planets, and the moon. Now they were going to observe the moon for themselves and record what they saw each night. In their excitement to do so, one went to the other’s house. As the sun went down and the moon came up, they climbed into a tree house to get a better view, made their observational drawings and notes, and fell asleep. While their parents had a few nervous moments before the two were located, they were pleased with their students’ enthusiasm for observing the sky. So was their teacher.
The National Science Education Standards (NSTA, 1996) identified “making observations” as a key component of inquiry-based, discovery-focused learning in science instruction. This means that students engage with an inquiry question, topic, concept, or problem in science through direct observation of the natural world and develop the skills to record the data from their observations, analyze and interpret it, and infer explanations and draw conclusions from what they have observed (Hanuscin, 2008).
When students practice observing in science, they use their senses to collect information about objects and events related to a question, topic, or problem to solve in science. This information is the data they will organize and analyze to answer questions and learn through discovery. It’s important to support students by providing ways to organize their data collection.
Equally important is providing time for students to share and discuss their ideas about their observations as a part of conceptual development and change in science instruction, an approach that reflects a social constructivist theoretical perspective. For example, a study that described how a teacher scaffolded 5th-grade students learning about the earth and moon, beginning with observations of the natural world and models and including opportunities for students to present their ideas to peers and reflect on their own understanding (Barnett & Morran, 2002).
Teachers can effectively scaffold student understanding through careful questioning as students share their observations of the natural world. In a study on the use of teacher questions about students’ observations and readings about the moon, Van Zee, Iwasyk, Kurose, Simpson, and Wild (2001) made three assertions about eliciting student thinking:
- Ask questions that develop conceptual understanding in order to elicit students’ experiences (e.g.,What can you tell me about the moon?), and then diagnose and further refine students’ ideas (e.g.,What is your evidence for that idea?).
- Ask students to make their meanings clear and to explore various points of view in a respectful and neutral way, and monitor the discussion and their thinking.
- Practice quietness as well as reflective questioning by using wait time, listening to students, adding information only as it is needed, and encouraging students to think things through for themselves.
Introduce a topic related to objects in the sky, changes in the sky, and earth in the solar system by reading aloud both fiction and nonfiction children’s books; then discuss them with students, using reader response questions to engage students, tap into their prior knowledge, and generate questions for inquiry in space science. The sky and the objects in it is a topic that lends itself to book pairings: a book of fiction, poetry, myth, or traditional tales along with a book of nonfiction at the appropriate level for each grade.
Next, provide a grade-appropriate method for students to directly observe and record information on phenomena in the sky over time, such as taking observational notes, keeping journals, and establishing a place and time to do observations to compare them over time. These data can be kept by the whole class on a chart or students can collect them individually, in pairs, or in small groups. After a period of data collection and discussion of observations, model a means for students to collapse their data using charts — comparing their data with those of other students and compiling a class set of all the data.
During the period of observation and data collection, provide other resources for students to learn more about the phenomena or events they are observing in the sky:
- text sets of books
- DVDs and other visual media
- online resources
Finally, students can begin to summarize the findings of their data collection and prepare to communicate what they have found through a variety of means:
- displays of data collected with written summaries
- posters and bulletin boards
- video or PowerPoint presentations
The NASA website has extensive multimedia to add virtual observations to the actual observations made by students (e.g., photographs, on demand videos, NASA TV, interactive features, podcasts and vodcasts, and NASA Kid’s Club).
Introduce the topic of the sun in the sky by reading aloud a pair of books, an African folktale and a nonfiction book about the sun. Begin with the classic Caldecott Honor Book Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky. It is a retelling by E. Dayrell (1990), of an African pourquoi, or why folktale, beautifully illustrated by Blair Lent. It demonstrates that long before people had telescopes or means of space travel, they wondered about what they saw in the sky.
Lead a discussion, asking reader response questions: What have you wondered about what is in the sky? Write students’ comments under the “W” heading in the middle column of a KWL. (What we know, What we want to know, What we learned.)
Follow this reading and discussion with a nonfiction book by Frank Asch (2008), The Sun Is my Favorite Star. The main character is a child like the students, and the narrative follows that child’s experiences with the sun through a day.
Lead a discussion and ask reader response questions: Has anything like this ever happened to you? What do you know about the sun? Add students comments to the KWL chart under the heading “K.” As students carry out their observations of the sun, what they learn can be added to the “L” column.
Lead students in observations of the sun each day. The beginning of the month would be a good time to start. Prepare a large calendar chart with a space for each day and regular times each day when the class will go or look outside to observe the sun. For example, this could be done each hour in a half-day kindergarten class, or every few hours in a full-day kindergarten or 1st- or 2nd-grade class.
Also, find a fixed point in the yard such as a tree or utility pole so students can note the position of the sun throughout the day. Other things to note are the sky and weather conditions, such as clouds or rain, and the appearance of the sun as a result. Students can draw and take notes on individual chalk- or whiteboards or on paper on a clipboard, or they can dictate their observations if necessary.
The result would be a month long observation of the sun’s movement throughout the day and of its changes in appearance due to changes in the sky. This could be recorded on the large classroom calendar, displayed on a bulletin board with one child’s drawing for that day, or made into a book of the day’s drawings by each child. Send a letter home to parents explaining the activity and asking them to observe with their student what time the sun goes down each day; the students can bring a drawn or written observation of this to class at the end of a specified time period. Students can use their observations to complete the KWL chart, make additional observations — such as what happens when a magnifying glass is held over a leaf with the sun shining on it or how the sun casts shadows — and record these observations to extend information acquired through reading other books about the sun in the sky.
Recommended children’s books
- The Sun is My Favorite Star by Frank Asch
- Sun Up, Sun Down: The Story of Day and Night by Jacqui Bailey
- What Makes Day and Night? by Franklyn M. Branley
- The Sun: Our Nearest Star by Franklyn M. Branley
- Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell
- The Sun is Always Shining Somewhere by Allan Fowler
- Sun Up, Sun Down by Gail Gibbons
- The Sun by Seymour Simon
3rd Grade–5th Grade
Students can launch a month-long period of observations to answer the following question: Where is the moon tonight? Begin by reading two books in the Magic School Bus series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. The narrative in each book in this series focuses on an unusual but effective teacher, Ms. Frizzle, who takes her students on amazing field trips in a magic school bus so they can learn about a subject first-hand. Read The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System (1992) to provide a big picture on everything in the sky, followed by The Magic School Bus Takes a Moon Walk (2007). Students can respond to reader response questions and prompts:
- What have you observed about the moon?
- What have you wondered about the moon?
Send a letter home to parents requesting permission for their student to participate in observations of the moon each night at home and also requesting their assistance with their student. Each student can make a small booklet by cutting eight pieces of 8 ½ x 11 inch black construction paper into fourths and then stacking and stapling 30 or 31 (depending on the number of days in that month) of these small sheets together in one corner. These can be kept in a plastic sandwich bag with either a white or yellow crayon or piece of chalk. The students can plan to observe the moon from the same position each night (e.g., from a porch or window, at the same time each night). They can note the date and time of each observation, draw a picture of the moon, and make notes on the back of the paper. They can share their observations in small groups the next day and discover that the moon goes through phases and changes shapes.
Recommended children’s books
- The Moon Seems to Change by Franklyn M. Branley
- What the Moon is Like by Franklyn M. Branley
- One Giant Leap by Robert Burleigh
- Mission Control, This is Apollo: The Story of the First Voyages to the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
- The Magic School Bus: Lost in the Solar System by Joanna Cole
- The Magic School Bus Takes a Moon Walk by Joanna Cole
- Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
- So That’s How the Moon Changes Shape by Allan Fowler
- When You Look Up at the Moon by Allan Fowler
- The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
- Phases of the Moon by Gillia Olson
- The Moon by Seymour Simon
- One Small Step: Celebrating the First Men on the Moon by Jerry Stone
English language learners
English language learners benefit from several of the essential strategies used when observing the sky. They rely on their senses to collect information, rather than listening or reading in English. They also use drawing as a means of recording what they observe; an adult or more capable peer can assist in adding written notes to the drawings. They use concrete materials such as drawing paper and journals, and props such as models of the earth or solar system and DVDs or video clips of the sky, which can be accessed online, can be used.
Provide already formatted journals for observing the sky, with a defined entry space for each observation. The student can add their name. Write the date on a whiteboard, which students can copy onto their observations. Students can also work with you, an aide, or in pairs or small groups to add written notes to their drawn observations. Take dictation for students as they describe their observation, adding written clarification to their drawings. A word bank of needed vocabulary can be posted in the room, and a copy can be provided for each student so they can copy the words they might need.
The best assessment for this strategy is a direct demonstration by the student of the data they collected and an explanation to others of their questions, problems to be solved, the resulting data and how they analyzed it, summarization, inferences, interpretations, and conclusions about what they learned. A special day could be set aside for individuals and groups to find ways to do this demonstration and communicate their findings to others. Other students can do a peer-assessment of the students’ demonstrations and what they learned from the student. A class could also invite other classes in the school to this event.
The NASA website is a rich source of resources for space science. Under the feature for educators, select a grade such as K–4 or 5–8, and also select the type of instructional material desired(e.g., classroom activities, educator guidelines, lesson plans, videos, and websites).