For ages, people all over the world searched for patterns in the heavens and related them to daily life and beliefs. Celestial study guided early travelers, and sightings of celestial objects helped determine when to plant and harvest food. In this study, students choose a celestial body or constellation and study how it has been explained and interpreted across cultures and time. Students present their learning using technology-enhanced displays and dramatic interpretations during a culminating star party.
- Essential Question
What can we learn from the night sky?
- Unit Questions
How has the night sky been explained and interpreted across cultures and time?
What impact has this had on modern astronomy?
Why is the study of stars important to us today?
- Content Questions
What are constellations, and what stories are associated with them?
What is the difference between a star and a planet?
Who invented the constellations we know today?
View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Starquest Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.
Introducing the Unit
Ask students to describe the objects they see in the sky and what they have observed about them. Have students hypothesize about what they think the sky may have looked like thousands of years ago. Pose the Essential Question, What can we learn from the night sky? Have students discuss the question in a pair-share grouping. Bring the discussion back to the whole group and have students share what they discussed. Lead a discussion on ancient concepts about the sky and the ways that celestial objects could have enabled ancient peoples to tell time or to navigate. Have students write notes and questions in their journals during discussion periods.
Have students begin to develop a Know-Wonder-Learn (K-W-L) chart about astronomy. Prompt questioning during this process, and record student responses. (Sample prompt questions include the following: What are constellations, and what stories are associated with them? What is the difference between a star and a planet? What is our current concept of the universe?) Throughout the unit, come back to the K-W-L chart before and after each activity, and add new information. Explain to students that people tend to see patterns formed by different groups of stars, which they often name. These patterns are called asterisms. Some asterisms, called constellations, were broadly recognized and became important to entire cultures.
Help students appreciate how other cultures see the sky by organizing a cooperative sky-gazing project with teachers and students in other parts of the world. Search for a class wanting a partner class to study astronomy at the ePALS Web site*. If none exists, set up a project proposal. If you have nonnative speakers in your class, try to locate ePals in countries that speak their native language. Do this as far in advance as possible. Have students pair with assigned ePALS partners and discuss with other students what they see in the night sky at their respective latitudes and longitudes.
Decide what kinds of records the students will keep and the frequency with which they communicate with each other. For example, students may note positions of stars and constellations at a given hour, and maintain maps and other records of differences and similarities in the night sky on a global scale. Set aside time to talk about and record students’ thoughts on chart paper for the whole class to view.
Looking at Constellations and Writing Myths
Explain to students that people all over the world have tried to make sense of the sky. Share the Unit Questions: How has the night sky been explained and interpreted across cultures and time? What impact has this had on modern astronomy? and Why is the study of stars important to us today? Explain that students explore these questions by choosing a celestial body or constellation and studying it. Distribute copies of the unit syllabus, which includes a checklist and outlines expectations for the unit.
Distribute the Create a Constellation pattern (doc) to each student. This has the group of stars interpreted by the ancient Greeks as Ursa Major, which means the Great Bear. Tell students that different cultures looked at the same skies and created different stories. Present myths from different cultures based on this star pattern. Have students use this set of stars to invent their own constellation and write a short myth or story that explains its significance or write a new myth about an existing constellation. Have students share their short stories with the class. Discuss similarities and differences between students’ interpretations and those of different cultures. Use a Venn diagram to model this. Next, have students find at least two myths from different cultures that relate to a different constellation. Have them highlight the similarities and differences using a Venn diagram.
Introduce the Creative Constellations activity, and hand out the constellation creator instructions and story rubric. This activity requires a homework session on a cloudless night, so it may be assigned on another date within the project. Consult the Clear Sky Clock* for your area for a forecast of sky conditions. This site also provides lists of astronomy clubs and other resources that may provide volunteers and other assistance in organizing the unit’s culminating star party. Volunteers often bring their own telescopes to such events. Set aside time so students can present their creations to their class. Engage ePALS partners in the activity, and have students share their constellations with their partners. Ask students to provide peer feedback using the story rubric.
Distribute the constellations and celestial body list. Divide students into small groups (some students may choose to work alone). Those students working in groups use the collaboration rubric to help them work together successfully. Each group or individual is responsible for the following tasks:
- After choosing a celestial body or constellation, complete research using print and electronic sources to:
- Learn about the current scientific understanding of astronomy as it relates to the constellation as well as associated myths and folklore
- Address the Unit Questions: How has the night sky been explained and interpreted across cultures and time? What impact has this had on modern astronomy? and Why is the study of stars important to us today?
- Create a presentation (slideshow, newsletter, or wiki)
- Choose at least two stars in the constellation to investigate. See the student newsletter and wiki* samples. Ask students to use the scoring guide to help them create a high-quality project.
- Develop and present a dramatization of one of the explanations associated with the constellation (past or present). Submit an outline of the script, setting, roles, plot, and background information. Use the dramatization rubric to develop this.
Remind students to revisit their collaboration rubric, dramatization rubric, and scoring guide throughout their project work. Conduct student conferences to ensure that students are on track.
After students have completed their projects, have them answer the Starquest questions, and be prepared to discuss and debate the answers with the class.
Concluding the Unit
Have students organize all their assignments in a portfolio. Host a star party or “Starquest Night” and invite other students, parents, guardians, and community members to share in the students’ learning during the unit. The event could include guest speakers, stargazing, and the presentation of students’ original myths, presentations, and dramatizations. Invited guests can provide feedback to students.
As a final reflection activity, conduct a summary group discussion around the Curriculum-Framing Questions and the following topics:
- Why do you think people through time have needed to study and interpret the night sky?
- How has the science of modern astronomy today changed our culture and view of our place in the universe? How will this continue to change in the future?
- What advances in astronomy do you think have been most important (telescopes, computer imaging, satellite exploration, manned space flight, or other advancement)?
- How is the study of the stars important to our culture today?
- What aspects of modern astronomy thought do you think may be redirected, developed, or changed in the near and distant future?
- Do you think there is any "truth" of astronomy that we will, one day, find to be in error?
- What theoretical and practical advances should astronomy science pursue into the future?
- What can we learn from the night sky?
- Basic knowledge of research skills using print and electronic sources
- Familiarity with presentation and desktop publishing software
- Understanding of Internet search engines
- Understanding of source citation
Special Needs Student
- Assign specific tasks (art, research, and word processing) during group work, and enlist peer support
- Develop a daily "To Do" list to aid organization and work completion
- Replace syllabus activities with alternative activities specifically designed for the interest and ability of the student
- Allow oral responses to the Starquest questions
- Have the student illustrate how the view of the sky varies from time to time or place to place (for example, how does it change in 2 hours, in a month, in a year, and in thousands of years? or address what an observer near the equator sees differently from an observer near the North or South Pole) and have the student explain why the sky varies in the illustration
- Have the student learn about the Southern Hemisphere and how the skies were viewed in ancient times—explain that many of the cultural interpretations relate to the views from the Northern Hemisphere
- Encourage the student to study an astronomical topic, such as auroras, telescopes, comets (Halley, Shoemaker-Levy 9, Hale-Bopp, and others), meteors (Leonids, Perseids, Barringer Meteor Crater, Tunguska, and others), natural satellites (such as the moon or Titan), asteroids, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s great red spot, sunspots, multiple stars, variable stars, supernova, galaxies, or another topic of interest
- Have the student act as an expert, researching and presenting myths from the student’s native culture
- Have the student work with the ELL teacher to develop a glossary of terms in English and the student’s first language
- Allow the student to write in the student’s first language for later transcription, or allow for dictated responses to essay questions
Geoffrey Ryan participated in the Intel® Teach Program, which resulted in this idea for a classroom project. A team of teachers expanded the plan into the example you see here.
Background: From the Classroom in Texas, United States
At a Glance
- Grade Level: 6-8
- Subjects: Science, Language Arts
- Topics: Communication, Constellations, Space, Stars, Celestial Bodies
- Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Interpretation, Comparison, Creativity
- Key Learnings: Cultural and Scientific Understanding of the Universe
- Time Needed: 2-3 weeks
Common Core Alignment
This unit is aligned to Common Core State Standards for Language Arts.
- Reading: Informational RI.6, RI.7, RI.8
- Writing W.6, W.7, W.8
- Language L.6, L.7, L.8
This unit is aligned to Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
- Earth in the solar system
- 5.ESS1, MS.ESS1: Earth's Place in the Universe