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Spaceship Earth

Stars & the Solar System

4th Grade, 5th Grade

NGSS Standards covered: 5-ESS1-2 , 5-ESS1-1 , 5-PS2-1
In this unit, students explore the Earth, Sun, Moon, and stars using observations of shadows and changing patterns in the sky. Students also explore the planets of our Solar System and begin to consider what might lie beyond. Less
  1. Lessons
  2. Activity Prep
  3. Assessments

Lesson 1: Day, Night, & Earth's Rotation

Spinning Earth

THIS LESSON WAS REVISED ON JULY 1, 2019. Here is a link to the previous version.
In this lesson, students come to understand that the setting Sun isn’t moving, the Earth is spinning. In the activity, Spinning Earth, students use their bodies as a kinesthetic model of the Earth to understand how the speed of the Earth’s spin affects the length of a day.

Number of students:
Earth Map printout Print 30 copies
Sun Model printout Print 15 copies
One needs to be yellow to color the Sun and the other should be a dark color such as purple, blue, or black. Colored pencils or markers will also work.
60 crayons
30 pairs
Sticker Labels (1" x 3")
Tape also works. We prefer stickers because they are easier to distribute in a classroom.
120 labels
Prep Instructions

We suggest students work in pairs. Homeschool students will need a partner for the activity.

All students will be standing up and spinning in place throughout the activity with a place to view their paper Sun model. We find that placing the Sun model on a desk and standing about a foot behind the desk works well.

If you have a lamp or bright light, you can also use this as a model for the Sun. Just remind students NOT to look directly at the bulb.

Lesson 2: Earth's Rotation & Daily Shadow Patterns

Make a Shadow Clock

In this lesson, students will learn why our ancestors divided the day into hours and how clocks measure the Sun’s apparent movement. In the activity, Make a Shadow Clock, students make their own sundials. First, students use flashlights indoors to understand how the position of the light affects the time shown on the clock. Then, students take their shadow clocks outside to see how the position of the Sun can tell them the time of day.

Number of students:
Shadow Clock Template printout
Use Google to find your latitude, then print your clock template.
Print 15 copies
Blank Paper (8.5 x 11")
Used to make Cardinal Direction signs for the classroom. Recycled is fine.
4 sheets
Glue Sticks
Tape works too.
30 glue sticks
30 rulers
30 pairs
Paper Plates
30 plates
30 toothpicks
White Chalk
1 stick
Bright Flashlights
15 flashlights
Sticky Tack
You can also use clay or Playdough.
8 strips
Prep Instructions

We suggest students work in pairs. Homeschool students can work on their own.

Prep Shadow Clock Templates

Each Shadow Clock printout has two templates on it. Once you print these out, cut each in half so that each student will have one.

Label Classroom Walls with Cardinal Directions — North, South, East, West

When students are experimenting in the classroom, they need to orient their Shadow Clocks so the arrow points North.

Make four signs — North, South, East, and West.

Here’s one easy way to figure out where each sign goes:

  1. Open Google Maps and enter your school’s street address.
  2. Zoom in on your school and look at surrounding streets and landmarks.
  3. North is always up on Google Maps. Find a landmark that’s to the north of your school.
  4. Put North on the wall that’s closest to that landmark.
  5. Face North. Put West on the wall to your left, East on the wall to your right, and South on the wall behind you.

Find North Outside and Draw Arrows with Chalk

The main activity is completed indoors, but we recommend that students test their Shadow Clocks outside on a sunny day. They’ll need to orient their Shadow Clock with the arrow pointing North. We recommend that you sketch several compass roses on the ground in chalk to serve as workstations.

The easiest way to find exact North when you are outside is to use a Shadow Clock. Turn the shadow clock to match the current time. Now the compass rose you made on the Shadow Clock will be properly oriented.

A magnetic compass, whether an old-fashioned kind or those available on many smartphones (such as iPhone’s compass app), actually points toward the Earth’s magnetic North Pole, which is slightly off from the geographic North Pole, depending on where you are. It may cause some error, depending on your location.

Lesson 3: Seasonal Changes & Shadow Length

Guess the Season

In this lesson, students discover how the Sun’s path changes with the seasons. In the visual activity, Guess the Season, students figure out the season of the year by studying a photo. Students come to realize that they can use the time of day and length of shadows to figure out the season in each photo.

Prep Instructions

This activity does not require supplies.

Review Photos and Answers Before Class

Each photo has an obvious clue related to the season — like ripe pumpkins for autumn or snow for winter. Students will recognize those clues immediately.

But each photo also includes the time it was taken. Using the time and the Sun’s position, students can figure out the season using astronomical clues — like the length of the day (long in summer, short in winter) or the time of sunrise (early in summer, late in winter).

In the class discussion that follows each photo, you may need to prompt students to notice the time on the photo and think about what the time says about the season. Reviewing the questions and answers before class will help you prepare to facilitate class discussion.

Lesson 4: Seasonal Patterns & Earth's Orbit


In this lesson, students will be introduced to the Earth’s orbital movement around the Sun, as a means of seeing why the constellations change. In the activity, Universe-in-a-Box, students make a paper model that helps them visualize the Earth’s yearly orbit around the Sun. They use this model to understand why some constellations are only visible during part of the year.

Number of students:
Constellation Guide & Universe-in-a-Box (Northern Hemisphere) printout
Alternatively, you can print our Southern Hemisphere version.
Print 30 copies
Universe-in-a-Box Answer Key teacher-only resource 1 copy
Universe-in-a-Box Teacher Tips worksheet 1 copy
30 rulers
30 pairs
Paper Fasteners
30 fasteners
Prep Instructions

No prep required.

Lesson 5: Moon Phases, Lunar Cycle

Model the Moon's Phases

This lesson explores why the Moon seems to change shape (phases) over the course of a month. In the activity, Model the Moon's Phases, students use a styrofoam ball as a model of the Moon and a flashlight as a model of the Sun to gain a better understanding of how the interactions between the Sun and Moon are responsible for the Moon’s phases.

Number of students:
Sharpened. Skewers also work.
15 pencils
Bright Flashlights
You can also use a bright lamp or overhead projector that you can point towards the students to serve as the Sun for multiple groups. Be careful not to look directly into such a bright light source.
15 flashlights
Styrofoam Balls (2")
We suggest smooth, solid styrofoam balls. Rough foam balls are translucent and don't work as well. You can substitute any round opaque object that can be skewered.
15 balls
Prep Instructions

We suggest students work in pairs. Homeschool students will need a partner for this activity.

Prepare to Darken the Room

It is important to get your room as dark as possible! It's worth taking the time to black out your windows and even tape curtains to eliminate cracks of light. Also, the brighter your flashlights, the better the demonstration. The flashlights we link to are particularly bright and inexpensive.

Lesson 6: Planets & Solar System

Running to Neptune

This lesson introduces the “wandering stars.” Students will learn what it means to see them with their own eyes, and will learn some interesting discoveries about each one. In the activity, Running to Neptune, students draw out the planets in our Solar System with chalk on the playground. Then, they play a racing game, running to each planet, reinforcing the names, order, and relative distances between the planets.

Number of students:
Distance Between Planets worksheet 1 copy
Permanent Marker
1 marker
1 ruler
1 pair
Toilet Paper Tube
Recycled is fine. Can reuse from year to year once assembled.
1 tube
Colored Chalk
10 sticks
Can reuse from year to year once assembled.
60 feet
Prep Instructions

You need an outdoor area that’s at least 60 feet long where you can mark on the ground with chalk.

Watch the Prep Video

We include an instructional video for this activity that is meant for the teacher, not for students. The video walks you through how to mark the string at particular increments with permanent marker, which needs to be prepared in advance of the activity.

Lesson 7: Gravity

Gravity Jump

In this lesson, students discover that gravity exists on all planets and moons, but the amount of gravity is different because it depends on how massive the object is. In the activity, Gravity Jump, students measure how high they can jump on Earth and then calculate how high they would be able to jump on other planets and moons within our Solar System.

Number of students:
Gravity Graph worksheet 30 copies
Gravity Jump Data worksheet 30 copies
Gravity Jump & Gravity Graph Answer Key teacher-only resource 1 copy
Planet & Moon Exploration Stations worksheet 2 copies
Or colored pencils.
30 crayons
Must have metric centimeter units clearly visible
30 rulers
Post-Its (3")
90 post-its
Prep Instructions

We suggest students work in pairs. If possible, we recommend pairing students of similar heights together. This way, when the students remove the sticky notes from the wall, they should be able to easily reach them. Homeschool students can work on their own.

Decide Where Students Will Jump

Each pair of students needs a blank space (a wall or cabinet) where they can place their sticky notes and measure their jump height. If you have enough space in the classroom this is ideal, but you can also do this in the hallway.

Set up Planet and Moon Exploration Stations Before Class

We suggest printing out two sets of the Planet and Moon Exploration Stations so that a maximum of 4 students are at each station at a time (given a class of 32 students). Each student will only need to visit 4 stations. We suggest placing one set of these stations at opposite ends of the classroom or one station on desk clusters of 4 so that students have the most room to spread out.

Teacher Science Background

We have rounded numbers to simplify the gravitational differences between Earth and other planets and moons. If you or your students are curious, the exact amounts of gravitational pull and how they compare to Earth are listed here:

  • Earth | 9.81 m/s2
  • Moon | 1.62 m/s2 | 5.98 times less gravity than Earth
  • Jupiter | 24.79 m/s2 | 2.55 times more gravity than Earth
  • Mars | 3.71 m/s2 | 2.61 times less gravity than Earth
  • Titan | 1.35 m/s2 | 7.18 times less gravity than Earth
  • Triton | 0.78 m/s2 | 12.43 times less gravity than Earth
  • Neptune | 11.15 m/s2 | 1.15 times more gravity than Earth

Even though they are much larger than Earth, both Jupiter and Neptune are gas planets, which means that they have much lower densities. Uranus is much larger than Earth, but because the density is much less in comparison to Earth’s, the gravitational pull of Uranus is actually less than that of Earth.

Lesson 8: Star Brightness & Habitable Planets

Star Explorer

In this lesson, students discover that the Earth is in the “Goldilocks Zone” — a distance from the Sun with the right amount of light and heat for life to exist. In the activity, Star Explorer, students plan a space mission to another planet outside our Solar System based on the amount of heat and light that reaches the planet’s surface. Once students plan their space mission, they will reflect on what our Sun would look like from this far-away planet.

Number of students:
Gravity Guru & Spinning Specialist worksheet 15 copies
Mission Plan worksheet 15 copies
Plant Pro worksheet 15 copies
Plant Pro, Water Wizard, and Mission Plan Answer Keys teacher-only resource 1 copy
Starlight Guide worksheet 15 copies
Starlight Guide Answer Key teacher-only resource 1 copy
Water Wizard worksheet 15 copies
30 pairs
Prep Instructions

We suggest students work in pairs. Homeschool students can work on their own, but this activity works best if each student can engage in debate and discussion with at least one other person.

Check Shading on the Worksheets

The Mission Plan worksheets include greyscale shading that indicates the amount of heat and light that emit from each star of the three solar systems. The correct shading is essential for the activity, so we suggest printing out copies of these worksheets beforehand to ensure that everything prints correctly.

Teacher Tips

The solar systems and stars (Malina, Thea, and Helios) used in the activity are fictional, but they were inspired by real scientific discoveries. If you and your students would like to learn more about real stars and exoplanets that astronomers are investigating, there are several resources in our Extensions section for you to explore.