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Editor's Note

Earth’s Place in the Universe

Science and Children—November/December 2022 (Volume 60, Issue 2)

By Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

Younger elementary students begin to wonder and ask questions about where they live, beyond their homes or neighborhoods. These early learners start to see their world beyond their immediate surroundings and realize that they live on a planet and that planet is part of an intricate system. Students first begin recognizing daily Sun movements, monthly Moon movements, and seasonal and yearly changes.

Initially, their understandings are self-centric as they see the world only from their perspective, with the Sun rising and setting each day, the Moon’s changing shapes, and the regularity of seasonal changes specific to their location on the Earth. But questions begin to abound as first graders describe patterns and make predictions, such as the Sun always rises in the east or the Moon waxes and wanes on a regular schedule. One way for early learners to recognize these concepts is by examining daily or seasonal shadow patterns. In this issue, Science 101 and Teaching Through Trade Books offer background information and applicable classroom investigations to address the observations of Moon cycles and what shadows can tell us.

By fifth grade, students are usually even more intrigued and excited to learn about other planets, stars, and the universe. Questions and early attempts to provide explanations emerge as they wrap their heads around concepts, including the vastness of space and time. Students begin to learn why some stars appear brighter in the night sky. Creating accessible lessons for students to grapple with ideas of star brightness and seasonal night sky patterns is essential to building deep understandings, including the crosscutting concepts of patterns, cause and effect, and scale, proportion, and quantity in explaining phenomena.

Thinking in terms of learning progressions, it becomes clear that our students must have these initial experiences along their learning pathway to tackle more complex understandings of how these systems interact. In addition, attending to persistent misconceptions about the structures and functions of our universe can also be addressed when developmentally appropriate.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, she mentioned that she feels it is crucial to expose and challenge all her students to think about big ideas in science. She believes one of her students could cure cancer or be part of the next asteroid nudging team. In the recent Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), NASA was able to deliberately slam a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos to change its trajectory. The elements of complexity to pull off this feat involved a deep understanding of how all these systems interact in space and time. As Neil de Grasse Tyson recently pointed out, “I bet if the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be here, and we wouldn’t.” So, yes, our next asteroid buster may be in our classroom right now. Let’s make it our business to engage and excite young learners to reach for the stars and beyond.

Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn ( is Editor of Science & Children.

Astronomy Earth & Space Science Early Childhood Elementary

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