Starting to Understanding the beauty and wonder of our universe

This has been an important week in science and further points to the importance of the impending new New York State Science Learning Standards (NYSSLS), based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (Achieve, 2013). On Sunday, September 27th we were lucky to witness the beauty of the universe in the supermoon lunar eclipse. Then on Monday, September 28th NASA reported evidence of water flowing periodically on Mars. We were awed by the eclipse one day and reminded of the ever expanding understanding of the universe the next.

Science and science education are vitally important to our understanding of our world. This fundamental connection between science and each of our lives is the cornerstone of the NGSS. The part of the goal of K-12 science education articulated in A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC, 2012) is “to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues…” (p. 1). Our current and past K-12 science education has not prepared students to fundamentally understand science phenomena related to their world. This is evident in the fact that the majority of the people whom I have asked to explain the lunar eclipse are unable to provide a full and correct explanation. Many are able to identify that it has something to do with the Earth, moon, sun, and shadows in general, but few are able to correctly and completely explain the phenomena.

The good news is that in the future students will develop an understanding of the phenomena that explains the occurrence of lunar eclipses. This understanding is included in the NGSS, specifically in a disciplinary core. In the previous blogs we have been talking about the Framework and building an understanding of the three dimensions (science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and cross cutting concepts) of the NGSS. Here we will focus on the disciplinary core ideas.

The Framework clearly articulates the importance of focusing K-12 science education on core scientific phenomena: “an important role of science education is not to teach ‘all the facts’ but rather to prepare students with sufficient core knowledge” (NRC, 2012 p. 31). Furthermore, the goal is for students to develop a sufficient depth of knowledge such that the knowledge is usable (NRC, 2012). These core and relevant scientific concepts make up the disciplinary core ideas in the NGSS. The Framework specifies that a disciplinary core idea should meet at least two (more is preferred) of the follow:

  1. Have broad importance across multiple disciplines or be fundamental to one discipline
  2. Be important for understanding or investigating more complex phenomena
  3. Be related to the students’ life or a societal concern
  4. Can be learned at greater depth across multiple grades

The disciplinary core ideas are divided into four disciplinary categories: physical science, earth and space sciences, life sciences; and engineering, technology. Each of the four categories includes three or four core ideas. The disciplinary core ideas are based on one of the corner stones of the Framework, the learning progression theory. Thus, the disciplinary core ideas progress throughout K-12 science education, allowing students to develop a more complex, coherent, and deeper understanding of key phenomena.

Now let’s consider the lunar eclipse and how this relates to disciplinary core ideas included in the NGSS. First, it is included in the earth and space science in the core idea ESS1: Earth’s Place in the Universe. More specifically it is in the subcategory ESS1.B: Earth and the solar system. Students first begin to develop an understanding of this disciplinary core idea in first grade by making observations to describe the predicable patterns of motion in the sun, moon, and stars. Once students observe the patterns they build on this understanding in fifth grade to include daily changes in the length and direction of shadows, day and night as well as seasonal appearances of some stars. This helps students understand orbital relationship of the Earth around the sun and the moon around the Earth. In middle school students are asked to develop and use a model to explain the patterns of lunar phases, eclipses, and seasons. Then in high school students further their understanding to include complex phenomena related to elliptical orbits and Kepler’s Laws.

So what does this mean? This means that with the upcoming NYSSLS based on the NGSS students will be able to explain and understand the phenomena related to the lunar eclipse by the end of middle school. Yes, this is absolutely possible. I have had the pleasure of working with 6th grade students as they used a hula hoop, a larger marble to represent the Earth, a smaller marble to represent the moon, and a flashlight for the sun to model the cyclic patterns in the lunar phases and eclipses represented in several years of data.

You might still be wondering about the recent eclipse and how the orbits of the Earth around the sun and the moon around the Earth relate to this phenomenon. To understand this phenomenon first consider the patterns in the lunar phases – there is a new moon about once every 28 days. Then consider the occurrence of lunar eclipses over at least several years (the fact lunar eclipses don’t happen as regularly as the lunar phases is important). Also notice the differences in the shadow pattern on the moon between an eclipse and the lunar phases. When considering the pattern of the lunar phases and lunar eclipses use a model to explain the data. I used a flashlight, lacrosse ball, and golf ball on Sunday night to have my family members use a model to explain this phenomenon. The key is the moon’s orbit around the Earth at a five degree tilt to the plane on which Earth orbits the sun. These animations by NASA help explain this phenomenon.

OCM BOCES Center for Innovative Science Education is positioned to support the region’s transition to the upcoming NYSSLS. We are offering professional development opportunities this fall to prepare the region for the new standards.

Hehl_Jessica_150pxJessica Whisher Hehl
Coordinator
OCM BOCES Center for Innovative Science Education
jh
ehl@ocmboces.org

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