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Scale of the Solar System: The Journey Begins
Classrooms


Build Your Own Solar System

Color image of empty schoolyard.
More than a football field. Any large empty space can become a setting to help kids understand the vastness of space.

Creating a scale model of the solar system with your students is a great way for them to experience the vastness of the solar system and the relative sizes and locations of the planets and other solar system objects. Below are links to several classroom-tested activities and resources for background information. Some of these can work in a classroom. For others you will need to go outside and use a football or track field or a quiet street. Alternatively, take a field trip to an existing solar system scale model; locate one near you under the scale model exhibits page.

Model size and distance: Some scale-model activities that can work in the classroom are accurate for size of the planets but do not correctly scale the distances between planets. Other activities are accurate with respect to the distances, but the sizes are not to scale. These can lead to misconceptions unless you do both activities together and discuss each model's limitations. Of course, it is best to use a scale model that is correct for both size and distance, but you may not have the space.

Engage Grades 5 and Up: Note that these activities are appropriate for 5th grade or older students who are able to explore the geometry of sun-Earth-Moon relationships in three dimensions. Many children under Grade 5 are not able to fully conceptualize the Earth's spherical nature and their relationship to it, and so they are unable to create an accurate mental model. Even with older students it may be advisable to begin with scaling activities that are in their experience before doing these scaling activities. Submit videos or pictures of your scale model solar system and the people enjoying it to Share Your Stories!

Questions about classroom approaches or activities? Classroom ideas to share? Let us know.

Activities

Grades 5-8
Be prepared to address some misconceptions in this age group; students may have the solar system confused with the galaxy or the universe, and may confuse the solar system's formation with the Big Bang.

After ensuring that your students have a detailed understanding of the components and scale of the solar system, you may want to conduct some activities related to its formation. (Science Education Standards)

 
Activities Description
Jump to Jupiter Children help create and then navigate an outdoor course of the traditional "planets" (including dwarf planet Pluto), which are represented by small common objects. By counting the jumps needed to reach each object, children experience first-hand the vast scale of our solar system.
Solar System in My Neighborhood In this 1-hour activity, students shrink the scale of the vast solar system to the size of their neighborhood. They are challenged to consider not only the traditional "planets," but also some of the smaller objects orbiting the sun. Children compare the relative sizes of scale models of the planets, two dwarf planets, and a comet as represented by fruits and other foods. They determine the spacing between the scaled planets on a map of the neighborhood and relate those distances to familiar landmarks. This indoor activity may be used in addition to, or in place of, the outdoor scale model explored in "Jump to Jupiter."
Schoolyard Solar System The vastness of the solar system offers a unique lesson in large numbers and in scale. "The Schoolyard Solar System" was developed to demonstrate the solar system to scale; to show the relationship between units of thousands, millions and billions; and to accomplish these goals with student involvement that will re-enforce the lessons.
Build a Solar System This resource from the Exploratorium allows teachers and students to select a size for an object to represent the sun and all other sizes and distances in the solar system and distances to other interesting stars are calculated. The resource can be very good for a differentiated classroom to reduce the math requirement.
Solar System Math "Solar System Math" is a series of four classroom lessons centered on pre-algebra topics such as measurement, unit conversion, ratio and proportion, scale, data analysis, and data representation. The downloadable software application, "What's the Difference," supports the lessons with engaging multimedia that accurately illustrates the size, distance and composition of the bodies in our solar system.
The Orbit Simulator This simulator lets students explore many aspects of the orbits of planets -- and one comet. This could be a great teaching tool.


Grades 9-12
High school or early college students in Earth and Space Science or Astronomy courses will find these activities very
appropriate. These can be engagement activities leading to much more complex investigations.

 
Activities Description
The Voyage Scale Model Solar System In October 2001, the Voyage Scale Model Solar System opened in Washington, DC, displaying a one to ten billion scale of the sizes of the sun and planets, and the distances between them. In this lesson, students will replicate the Voyage model to experience the size of the solar system.
Build a Solar System This resource from the Exploratorium allows teachers and students to select a size for an object to represent the sun and all other sizes and distances in the solar system and distances to other interesting stars are calculated. The resource can be very good for a differentiated classroom to reduce the math requirement.
Schoolyard Solar System The vastness of the solar system offers a unique lesson in large numbers and in scale. "The Schoolyard Solar System" was developed to demonstrate the solar system to scale; to show the relationship between units of thousands, millions and billions; and to accomplish these goals with student involvement that will re-enforce the lessons.
The Thousand Yard Model This is a classic exercise for visualizing just how BIG our solar system really is. Both the relative size and spacing of the planets are demonstrated in this outdoor exercise, using a mere peppercorn to represent the size of the Earth.
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Last Updated: 12 Sep 2014