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.