To help students understand that the patterns of stars in the sky stay the same and different stars can be seen in different seasons.
In this lesson, students learn more about the patterns of stars in the night sky by engaging in an interactive activity called Star Search as well as a hands-on activity where they explore the night sky. These activities help emphasize that stars appear to move during the night, but really the earth is rotating and we are moving. As the earth makes its annual journey around the sun, different star patterns are seen in the night sky.
The Motivation uses a tool that shows what the night sky looks like on any given date and is used to show that, from month to month, the constellations have a different location in the sky. Then, in the Development, students should do the Star Search activity, which delves a bit deeper into specific constellations and the stories behind them. It introduces constellations in the night sky and the concept that the locations of these constellations are different depending on the season. The resource is broken down into the night sky of the four seasons (of the Northern Hemisphere), and students learn to identify the locations of four constellations in each season using the constellations’ alpha stars. Finally, students make a sky map which will guide and inspire them to do their own star gazing.
The hands-on activities are an introduction to star gazing. This lesson should provide the knowledge and inspiration to do some star gazing at home in the real night sky.
According research, there are no indications of misconceptions related to constellations. However, the research base shows that it is counterintuitive for students to understand that the sun is a star (and that planets orbit the sun). (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 335.) While this lesson does not address our solar system, the topic of the sun may come up since stars are the focus. Keep this misconception in mind as you pursue space-related activities with your students.
Students in grades three through five will be curious and ask questions about concepts dealing with magnitude. For instance, “How many stars are in the sky? Or in our universe? How far away are the constellations?” Some of your students will find these questions appealing. While the enthusiasm should be encouraged, the ability to understand scales of size will come in later grades. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 62.) Benchmarks also points out that learning the names of the constellations is not important in itself. This is in line with the National Science Education Standards’ guidance of putting less emphasis on “knowing scientific facts and information” and more emphasis on “understanding concepts and developing abilities of inquiry.” (National Science Education Standards, p. 113.)
Keep in mind that planets, such as Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, can sometimes be seen in the night sky. While the stars make their own light, light from the planets is reflected sunlight. This lesson will talk about constellations as fixed patterns in space and their movements in the night sky a result of the Earth moving around the sun. The planets other than Earth are also moving around the sun and their movements are not relative to the movements of the constellations. A quick search on the Internet can give guidance as to which planets are currently prominent and how to locate them.
Also, when students go home to look at the night sky, mention that they may want to look for the Milky Way. The Milky Way is our galaxy of about 200 billion stars and looks like a “river” or “band” of stars in the night sky. Late summer or winter evenings in a very dark sky are best for spotting the Milky Way.
The focus of the lesson—that the patterns of stars are fixed and move across the sky gradually—is the concept for students to retain.
We recommend that you take five minutes to become familiar with the Starry Night Sky Chart and bookmark it. Have your projector set up before the lesson begins.
The Starry Night Education site has a Starry Night Sky Chart that allows you to put in your zip code and see what the night sky looks like in your area. Be sure that under the options menu there are check marks next to “Show Constellations,” and “Label Stars” and “Show Horizon.” Before projecting the image, get a baseline of your students’ knowledge by asking these questions:
- Do you know what a constellation is?
- (Students will likely know, but if you need to provide an answer, you can say it is a group of stars that makes a pattern and has a name.)
- How many of you have ever spotted the big dipper in the night sky?
- (Encourage students to talk about other constellations they may have seen. If your students are familiar with the Big Dipper, proceed to the Starry Night Sky Chart.)
- Have any of you ever gone star watching?
- (If any of your students have done this, encourage them to share their experiences.)
Show students that you are putting in your zip code and pulling up the night sky in your area. Point out the marked constellations and tell students that the grouping of stars that make a constellation form a pattern.
Note what month it is and ask students if they think the constellations will appear in the same place next month. Take some answers and then point out one constellation and tell students to remember where it is and what it looks like. Then, under the Date & Time menu, go to the next month. What you will notice is that the constellation has moved. You can demonstrate this as you move forward with the next month. You may want to do several months and you may want to jump back and forth a bit to emphasize that the constellations are moving from month to month.
- Are you surprised that the night sky changes?
- The sky appears to be different from night to night, but what stays the same?
- (Students should have observed that even though the constellations appear to move across the sky, the constellations themselves are still the same. If they have not understood this yet, it is ok as this will come up again in the lesson.)
Tell students to use their Star Search student esheet to read instructions on how to use the Star Search interactive activity. They will click on a constellation box, find it by determining its alpha star, and then read the Greek mythological story about it. Make a point of telling students that the names of the constellations come from myths and that myths are stories or tales that are not based on fact.
Students are instructed to find the four constellations under “Spring:” The Big Dipper, Leo, Hydra, and Auriga. After students have found and read about these four, ask:
- Were the constellations easy to find and how did you go about doing so?
- (Gauge whether or not students used the alpha star to help them. They could feasibly click on each alpha star to find the constellation. Encourage students to look at the pattern of stars to find the constellations.)
- What did you learn about the constellations?
- (It is in this activity that students will learn about the ancient Greeks and the stories that describe the constellations. This is an opportunity for students to talk about the characters.)
Instruct students to go back to their Star Search esheet. There they should click the “Learn More” button, which gives them the background on how the constellation characters came to be. Then they should find the four constellations and read about each in the other three seasons. If all of your students are at third-grade reading level or higher, finding constellations and reading about each will not take long. If you need to adapt the lesson for time, have students only do one more season after “Spring.”
When they are finished, ask:
- Why do you think there are different constellations to find in each season?
- (Students may have realized in the Motivation that the stars appear to move in the night sky. This conversation will emphasize that thought. If they haven’t realized this yet, ask, “Do you think that the same constellations are always in the same place?” If they do not know the answer, share with them that as the earth rotates each night, the stars appear to move. And as the earth revolves around the sun, different stars will be seen from month to month.)
- Do you think that knowing where one constellation is in the sky can help you find others?
- (Students may realize the concept of a map of the night sky. As they did the Star Search exercise, they could see where the constellations were in relation to one another. You may want to introduce the concept of a night-sky map by discussing how land maps work.)
Students will now build their own evening sky map. Hand out the Making a Map of the Night Sky student sheet. Also hand out the Circular Map of the Sky and the Outer Sleeve that you printed from the Sky and Telescope site. There are instructions for students on their student sheets. They should be able to independently make their own sky maps. There is a step in which they need to put two staples into their map holders. You will want to either pass around several staplers or walk around to staple each student’s map holder.
Now students should line up today’s date with 7 p.m. Assign students to do some star searching as homework (which you may change depending on the weather and day of the week). Students should find three constellations and record their observations about them.
This assessment can follow the making of the sky map or it can follow the assignment to go star watching. Have students look at their evening sky maps, which should be set for a recent date and 7 pm. Have them turn to a later date at 7 pm. Then, again, have them move the wheel to a later date at 7 pm. For instance, they may move from December 14 to December 17 at 7 pm to December 21 at 7 pm.
Ask them to describe what happens to the constellations. This is where you can ascertain if students notice that both the patterns (constellations) stay the same and that the stars appear to move in the night sky.
Now send them to their student sheet where they will write their observations. You may use the discussion and their writing assignment to see if they understand what is stated as the purpose of this lesson.
Extend the lesson by having students do a series of night-sky observations. Have students write down their observations for one week. They should note the date, time, and place for each observation. They can compare their observations.
These Science NetLinks resources could be used to help extend the ideas in this lesson:
- Lunar Cycle Calendar is a tool that includes printable calendars on which students can record their observations of the moon. It also provides illustrations of the phases of the moon.
- Lunar Cycle Challenge offers an online activity in which students "drag" moons to their correct places in lunar cycles.