Title Third Grade Astronomy Unit

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					Title: Third Grade Astronomy and Light Unit

We propose to develop a set of curriculum materials suitable for use in third grade classrooms statewide,

adapted to the NC Standard Course of Studies competency goal 3 for third grade science, and

implementing inquiry-based learning methods. The curriculum is to be developed and tested in Durham

Public Schools, based on work already done by the proposers, and then made available to teachers


Need: There is a real need for well-designed inquiry-based curriculum materials to support teachers in

teaching physical science at the elementary school level. It is at this age that children's perceptions of

science and its relation to their life are formed, and an exciting, challenging, stimulating and successful

experience using scientific methods to achieve an understanding of familiar phenomena can have a real

impact on their developing perceptions. A successful experience early on will encourage students to seek

explanations of patterns they perceive. It will leave them with an intuitive grasp of the scientific method,

an appreciation of its relevance, and the confidence that they are capable of applying it.

       No phenomenon is more admirably suited to this purpose than the cycles we observe in Nature as

a product of the cyclic motions of the Earth/Sun/Moon system. These are ubiquitous, familiar, regular

patterns whose underlying astronomical explanations are simple enough to be grasped by children yet not

clear in the minds of many adults. What a natural place to start if one aims to raise children for whom

science is not a distant, arcane, and impenetrable collection of ideas relevant only to its practitioners, but a

living, intimately familiar part of their set of skills and thought patterns!

       This subject matter naturally leads into discussions of other astronomical phenomena. Astronomy

is perhaps the only branch of physical sciences in which discoveries are made daily whose nature and

significance can easily be communicated to elementary school students, providing a unique opportunity to

introduce them to the excitement of science as advancing the frontiers of human knowledge.

       These promising possibilities are only rarely realized in classrooms however. Teachers find the

material challenging, the content baffling, and inquiry-based lessons difficult to plan and execute. Our

experience with preliminary versions of the astronomy unit we’ve developed so far demonstrate that we
can provide, at a cost affordable to almost every classroom teacher, state-wide and national curricular

support needed to teach this material with confidence.

Standards: Under NCSCOS for third grade, competency goal 3 requires the learner to “make
observations and use appropriate technology to build an understanding of the earth/moon/sun system,”
and competency goal 4 requires the learner to “build an understanding of light and heat concepts.”
The materials to be developed under this project will directly address these goals.

Background: The curriculum materials to be developed using Fellowship funds originate in work I have

done with R. Plesser, whose five children are all alumni or students at Forest View, over the past five

years. During this time, we have developed together an approach to the material that emphasizes

interactive learning and hands-on experimentation with models as a way to understand the phenomena.

The lesson plans we have developed have been used by Duke undergraduate volunteers who have

presented the material to all third grade classes at Forest View for the past three years, at Hillandale

Elementary for the past two years, and as of this year at E.K. Powe Elementary as well. In the summer of

2003, with the help of a grant from the North Carolina Space Consortium, I was able for the first time to

organize part of the curriculum in a form that could possibly be used by others. This material is available

online at http://www.cgtp.duke.edu/~plesser/outreachstuff/EarthSunMoon.pdf.

Outcomes: If selected for a Fellowship, I will use the time and funds provided to work with Plesser to

build upon the existing materials to enhance them in content and form, and incorporate investigations into

the nature of light (goal 4 required by NCSCOS). The materials are currently written in a form suitable

for weekly instruction by the Duke students. The Fellowship will enable me to produce a set of activities

and lesson plans adapted to classroom teaching that will support teachers in bringing inquiry-based

learning methods to bear this material.

One of the “difficulties” with this unit is that introducing subjects like Earth's motions or the Moon's orbit

inevitably elicits excited questions from kids on topics that lie outside the scope of this unit, and often

outside the scope of many teachers' comfort level with astronomy and physics. We see this as a strength

of the subject and want to encourage teachers to follow up on their students' questions. To this end we

will enhance and improve the science background section of the current version, making it searchable by
keyword, so that as many of the questions we have typically encountered in teaching the material find an

answer in the database. We will provide our contact information to teachers who use the unit and make

ourselves available to help with questions that are not addressed in the unit. The answers we compile will

be added to the database so that it becomes a live, continually updated set of responses to questions raised

by real students. We hope the availability of such a resource will encourage the open-ended discussions

that are one of the most rewarding outcomes of teaching this material.

       The curriculum we propose to produce will be an improvement over the commercial kits that are

the current standard in use: it is more explicitly adapted to the specific goals in NCSCOS, includes a set

of inquiries into the nature of light, and has been tuned by experience in classrooms to the abilities and

interests of third grade students. It will provide teachers with a timeline for the activities that encourages

spreading them throughout the school year, so lessons on the reasons for seasonal change can draw on

data produced by the students themselves over the course of the year (e.g., Sun tracking activities should

be undertaken in the fall, winter and again in spring so that the variations in the Sun's path across the sky

are made concrete). We will also suggest classroom routines that we have found to be useful at

reinforcing the concepts (such as maintaining an “Earth calendar” in the classroom using a globe moved

around the room in time with Earth's orbit about the Sun, etc). It will of course be freely available. The

materials required for these investigations are very rudimentary, almost all are readily available at local

stores everywhere, and we estimate their cost at under $200 (some additional materials may be needed for

enhancement activities that are optional). School districts throughout NC will be able to easily use our

materials list with prices and sources (vendors) to purchase and make available for their science kit

programs. Additional teacher resources include literature links, science notebook support to develop

writing skills, and integrated activities to support many of the 3rd grade NCSCOS Math goals. We believe

we can provide teachers with a better, less expensive alternative to the commercial products now in use.

       The lesson plans will be made available online through Plesser's Duke website. In addition, we

will submit them to NC-ISE, in the hope that it will be adopted as their recommended unit. If so we will

be able to help with disseminating the material through the leadership workshops and training sessions

provided by NC-ISE. Preliminary discussions with Ms. Brenda Evans have been encouraging.
Projected Timeline: During the Summer 2005 session, lessons developed so far will be strengthened

with enhanced interactive learning and hands-on activities, improved science background database, and

integrated literature, math and writing resources. Also this summer, I will audit Duke University’s

undergraduate astronomy course to improve my personal content background. The 2005-06 school year

will allow for continued curriculum development and evaluation of specific lessons by Durham Public

School teachers, Duke and UNC Elementary Science Professors and their Pre-Service Undergraduate

student teachers who pilot sections of the curriculum. Summer 2006 and the 2006-07 school year will

allow for continued development and increased partnership with curriculum specialists at Duke’s

Education Dept., UNC’s Morehead Planetarium, Shodor Foundation, NC DPI and the Center for Inquiry-

Based Teaching. At the end of our second fellowship year we will disseminate our materials with

assistance from the above partnerships along with presentations at state and national conferences.

Evaluation Measures: Evaluations will be gathered from teachers, professors and pre-service teaching

undergraduates who pilot the curriculum in the first two years of the fellowship. Educational specialists

at the Shodor Foundation, Center for Inquiry-Based Learning at Duke University and UNC Morehead

Planetarium will be pursued to critique the unit based on state and national standards. Additionally,

student work samples will be collected to assist with assessing student understanding. When the unit

becomes available on-line teachers will be asked to provide electronic evaluations that will assess unit

strengths and weaknesses.

Budget: R. Plesser will request underwriting from Duke U. of all materials needed for development,

office space, high speed internet connection, astronomy course fee, and additional stipend money. (see R.

Plesser’s Mentor Application)

References: 1)Everyday Classroom Tools, Harvard University, 2)Objects in the Sky, TRACS kit, and

3) Mirrors and Lens, STC kit.