August 20, 2003
Fifth-Grade Teachers -
This e-mail attachment is intended for Lansing fifth-grade teachers and elementary
school building science teachers. Since I don't yet have an updated list of fifth-grade
teachers for the new 2003-2004 school year, I'm using the list of e-mail addresses I
had for last year. Apologies if you've received this and have changed to another
grade. In any case, please share this information with other fifth-grade teachers in
your building who may not make regular use of e-mail. Thanks!
Below I've included two ideas related to teaching fifth-grade science that you may
find of interest. But first, let me briefly fill you in on what's happening with the
Elementary Science Teacher Specialist positions this year. As most of you are
aware, our district created the position of Elementary Science Teacher Specialist
(ESTS) two years ago. Three specialists were hired: Andon Pogoncheff working
with elementary schools in the Eastern area, Lori Abbott-Smith working with
elementary schools in the Everett area, and myself working with elementary schools
in the Sexton area. We worked primarily with fifth-grade teachers and students in
the fall and fourth-grade teachers and students in the spring. We followed a similar
plan for our work last year, with one modification. With the award of a National
Science Foundation (NSF) grant to fund the collaborative PI-CRUST Project
between our district and Michigan State University (MSU) to support grade-level
science study groups for K-8 teachers, half of my work load became dedicated to
that project. And by January 2003, Pat Christensen began filling in for me in five of
our Sexton area elementary schools. With the start of the new 2003-2004 school
year, the ESTS positions have been significantly reduced. Andon has retired. Lori
returns to work as a special education teacher, now at Dwight Rich. Pat returns full-
time to her fifth-grade classroom at Averill. And I'm going to be the sole ESTS for
our district, working half time in that capacity and half time with the PI-CRUST
Project. Exactly how (and when) one person in a half-time position is going to assist
with improving science teaching and learning in all of our elementary schools
remains to be seen. But that's the status of things at present, and so if there's
anything you can think of that could help you with your science teaching, I guess I'm
the person to contact. :-)
Meanwhile, as we begin to think about planning for and teaching science over the
coming year, here are two ideas that you might find useful.
1. Mars and Our First-Quarter "Astronomy" Unit
The first idea relates to our first-quarter science unit, using the BSCS module
Investigating Objects in the Sky. Admittedly, the focus of this module – and the two
state benchmarks for "astronomy" that we expect it to address – deals with
comparing the characteristics and motions of the earth, sun, and moon. Attention to
the other planets doesn't become relevant till middle school, and as such, Lesson 9
of the BSCS module can best be skipped in our fifth-grade unit.
However, the current proximity of Mars to Earth – and the fact that this is the closest
approach of the two planets in nearly 60,000 years – probably warrants devoting
some time to this special celestial event during fifth-grade science this fall. Given
that we want students to begin making (both daytime and nighttime) moon
observations as soon as possible after the start of the school year, we may as well
also have them pay some attention to observing Mars at this time. Some possible
ways that such Mars observations might be related to the focus of our unit could
include consideration of questions like these:
• Why is Mars so bright in the sky now? How does this compare with how
Mars looks at other times (e.g., over the next several months)?
• What is Mars' position in the sky relative to the background stars? How
does this compare to its position over the next several months? How does
this compare with how the moon's position changes relative to the
background stars over time? (Why/how does this occur?)
• When is Mars visible? When does it rise? When does it set? Does any
of this change over the next several months? Why?
• How does Mars' (apparent) motion across our sky compare with that of
our sun? Other stars? Our moon? Why is that?
• How far is it from the Earth to Mars now? How does this compare with the
distance from the Earth to our moon? From the Earth to our sun? From
Mars to the sun? Does the distance between the Earth and Mars change
over the next several months? By how much? Why? [Note that using
scientific notation is included in our district's mathematics pacing guide for
the first quarter of fifth grade. What better "excuse" do we have for using
such notation with fifth graders than to represent the large distances
between the earth, moon, sun, Mars, other planets, and other stars!]
• How big is Mars? How does this compare to the size of our Earth? Our
moon? Our sun?
Certainly there are lots more. If you have access to a telescope, and can share an
evening of viewing with your students, so much the better. If you have additional
ideas along these lines, please share them with me so that I can in turn pass them
along to our other fifth-grade teachers.
As for when and where to spot Mars in the days ahead, here's some basic
information. Like the sun and moon, Mars rises in the east and sets in the west.
Assuming clear skies (which, I admit, is a big assumption in Michigan), Mars will
probably be most easily visible in the late evening looking toward the southeast.
(Mars currently reaches its highest point in the southern sky in the early AM, which
makes it unlikely that any of us – or our students – are going to be looking for it then.
Early birds can look for it in the pre-dawn sky toward the southwest.) Mars and
Earth will be closest at 5:46 AM EDT on August 27th. Over the next several weeks,
the sun and Mars will rise and set as follows (based on information in the Lansing
State Journal, from the www.marsbase.net web site, and the "Evening Skies" article
by David Batch of the MSU Abrams Planetarium on pages 70-71 of the September
2003 issue of Science & Children):
Date Mars Sets Sun Rises Sun Sets Mars Rises Moon Phase
8/20/03 7:38 AM 6:50 AM 8:33 PM 9:27 PM was 8/19/03)
8/27/03 7:01 AM 6:56 AM 8:23 PM 8:55 PM New
9/03/03 6:24 AM 7:04 AM 8:11 PM 8:22 PM First Quarter
Waxing gibbous moon appears to the right of Mars
9/08/03 in the southeast sky about 1.5 hours after sunset.
Waxing gibbous moon appears to the left of Mars
9/09/03 in the southeast sky about 1.5 hours after sunset.
9/10/03 5:49 AM 7:11 AM 7:59 PM 7:48 PM Full
9/18/03 5:11 AM 7:20 AM 7:45 PM 7:11 AM Third Quarter
9/25/03 4:42 AM 7:27 AM 7:32 PM 6:39 PM New
On this date, Mars ends its "retrograde" motion. This also happens to be
9/29/03 the Summer Solstice for Mars' southern hemisphere.
Clearly, Mars becomes visible earlier in the evening as the weeks go by. But it also
will quickly lose brightness after August 27th. By the end of September, Mars (then
about 68 million kilometers from Earth) will display half the brightness it did at the
end of August (on closest approach of about 56 million kilometers).
2. Blackout and Our Fourth-Quarter "Electricity" Unit
The recent electric system failure vividly illustrates how dependent we are on
electricity. I have two suggestions for making use of this event when we get to our
electricity unit in the spring.
First, if you have your students do any kind of “quick-write” or journal entry each day
– many teachers do this each morning to get things started; it need not be tied to
any particular subject matter area – have them do one soon (while the event is still
reasonably fresh in their minds) that responds to a question like the following:
Where were you when the recent blackout struck at 4:09 PM EDT on
August 14th? What were you doing at the time? (Did your activity
involve electricity?) Did the blackout affect what you were doing?
I expect that many children will report lights, TVs, or air conditioners shutting off. But
across a classroom of experiences, you’ll probably get a much wider range of
experiences that illustrate the many ways in which we make use of electricity. If you
want to have your students share some of their experiences from August 14 th now,
fine. But also save (or have your students save) these journal entries and then
return to them when you start the fourth-quarter electricity unit for science.
Second, save recent pages from the local newspaper that describe the blackout and
related events. (Recent issues of magazines like Time or Newsweek might also
prove helpful.) These will provide additional examples of how our society depends
on electricity. These can be used to consider numerous issues in both science and
social studies. Looking over the past week’s Lansing State Journal, I’m saving the
Day Date LSJ Section
Friday August 15 The whole “8-page” issue
Saturday August 16 Sections A & C
Sunday August 17 Sections A (both parts) & E
Monday August 18 Section A
Tuesday August 19 Sections A & B
Wednesday August 20 Section B & C
Well, those are my two suggestions of science-related ideas to consider as you get
the new school year started. I hope you find them helpful. And if you have other
science-related ideas that you’d like to share with other fifth-grade teachers, please
let me know and I’ll try to pass them along as time permits. Meanwhile, I wish you
much success with your teaching this year!
R. Timothy Smith Education Center - Room 304
Elementary Science Teacher Specialist Lansing School District
firstname.lastname@example.org 500 West Lenawee Street
(517) 325 - 6290 Lansing, MI 48933