Moon Inquiry: Part 4 - The Movement of Objects in the Solar System

Junior (Age 9 – 12)

Curriculum Goal

STEM Skills and Connections: STEM Investigation and Communication Skills

  • Use an engineering design process and associated skills to design, build, and test devices, models, structures, and/or systems 
  • Communicate their findings, using science and technology vocabulary and formats that are appropriate for specific audiences and purposes

 Earth and Space Systems: Exploring and Understanding Concepts

  • Identify components of the solar system, including the Sun, Earth and other planets, natural satellites, comets, asteroids, and meteoroids, and describe their main physical characteristics
  • Identify the types of bodies in space that emit light and those that reflect light
  • Describe various effects of the relative positions and motions of Earth, the Moon, and the Sun


  • This is Part 4 of the Moon inquiry. This lesson is designed to occur the second week of the whole group Moon/Sun observations. Ideally, this will be happening as the full moon approaches during the lunar cycle.
  • Prior to Part 4, students gathered data about the Moon, illustrated pictures of their observations, and compiled further questions about the Moon.
  • This inquiry has centered students’ pre-existing knowledge and challenged them to examine what they already know and compare it with what they have been seeing/charting as a class. While some students may be familiar with the solar system and how objects move within it, others will not. Some students may have noticed patterns and correlations between their observations and the data they have been collecting, however being unable to articulate the causation. In Parts 4 and 5, students move beyond their own understandings to explore why the Moon appears to move through the sky and change appearance.


  • Whiteboard and projector
  • Templates to construct 2D Sun-Earth-Moon model (Appendix A) – enough for pairs of students
  • Split pins – enough pairs of students to have three pins
  • Scissors for the class (if students do not have their own)
  • One pre-built 2D Sun-Earth-Moon model (to show class)



  • Using the projector, display the Solar System Scope website and launch the simulator.
  • Zoom in so the Sun and the inner planets’ orbits are visible (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). Using the toggle at the bottom of the screen, click “play” to start the simulator. Play the simulator and vary the speed at which it runs. Running the simulator at the speeds of one hour/second, one day/second, and one month/second provides an opportunity to appreciate the size of the solar system by comparing how far the planets move at each of the given speeds. Allow students to watch the simulator at each speed for enough time for them to determine what they are observing.
  • Ask students to share their observations.
  • Possible observations include the different speeds at which the planets move around the Sun, the different speeds of their rotations on their axis, the movement of the Moon around the Earth, or the way the light from the Sun shines on the planets as they orbit around it.
  • If there is adequate time, students may be interested in how much more slowly the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) move around the Sun, as well as how much further out they are relative to the inner planets. You can also see the orbits of dwarf planets like Ceres and Pluto.
  • Tell students: Today we will be exploring why the movement of both the Moon around the Earth and the Earth around the Sun are important parts of our investigation of the Moon.


  • On the whiteboard, show students an image of the 2D Sun-Earth-Moon model. You can also hold up your pre-built model for them to see.
  • Tell students: You will work in pairs to build your own models of the Sun, Earth, and Moon, similar to what you see in this picture. What parts of this model do you think will move? How will they move?
  • Students may anticipate that the model will allow them to show the movement of the Moon around the Earth, and the Earth around the Sun, but if they do not demonstrate it by showing them how the pre-built model moves.
  • Ask students: Which parts of this model create light in real life? The Sun, the Moon, and/or the Earth?
  • Before they begin working with the model, it is important students understand that only the Sun produces light. The Earth and Moon reflect light, but do not create it.
    • This concept may have come up earlier in your inquiry, in which case this prompt acts as a reminder before students begin the activity.
  • Arrange students into pairs, and distribute Appendix A, split pins, and scissors (if needed) to each pair. Tell students: You will be working together to construct your models and then we will complete an activity. Don’t throw out your scrap paper! We will use some of it in the activity.
  • Support students as they cut out and fasten together the pieces of the model.


  • Give students the opportunity to play around with the model for a few minutes and see what it does.
  • Ask students: What do you think we might be able to learn using this model? What kinds of observations might we make?
  • Collect the models from the students to be redistributed in the next lesson.

Look Fors

  • Are students connecting the observations/data they have been collecting so far in the inquiry with the movement of the Earth and Moon around the Sun?
  • Do students understand which objects in the solar system emit light and which ones reflect light?
  • Are students making predictions about what the model might help them observe? Can they provide reasoning behind their predictions?

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