Constellation Patterns

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SWBAT explain how constellations move in the sky.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students evaluate and communicate information on the apparent movement of constellations using a variety of resources: interactive star map, planisphere, videos, modeled demonstration, and online resources.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students begin by studying the location of the Earth in the Universe. Then, students learn about the brightness of stars through investigations and research. At the end of this unit, students explore the patterns on Earth, such as day/night and the length of shadows. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by showing time-lapse videos of stars and constellations moving in the night sky. Students then explore the difference between circumpolar and seasonal stars through hands-on models, videos, and online research. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the apparent movement of constellations to construct an evidence-based argument. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-ESS1-2.  Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky.

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 8:

Students obtain, evaluate, and communicate information on the apparent movement of constellations using a variety of resources (interactive star map, planisphere, videos, modeled demonstration, and online resources). 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 2: Cause and Effect 

Students evaluate what causes the apparent movement of constellations in the sky. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS1.B:  Earth and the Solar System

The orbits of Earth around the sun and of the moon around Earth, together with the rotation of Earth about an axis between its North and South poles, cause observable patterns. These include day and night; daily changes in the length and direction of shadows; and different positions of the sun, moon, and stars at different times of the day, month, and year. (5-ESS1-2)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources to locate key information involving the apparent movement of constellations. In addition, this lesson supports CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. After researching how stars seems to move, students write an informative paragraph to convey their ideas. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


40 minutes

Teacher Note: This lesson is quite lengthy! It could easily be split into two shorter lessons! 

Partners & Computers

During today's lesson, students will be working in teams of two students (elbow partners). Each team of students will have one laptop computer to share. While we have enough computers for all students, I have found that partners are more successful collaborators when they are sharing one device. 

Envelope Book

For the Sun and Earth's Patterns Unit, students are creating an envelope book to help organize new information and to support an inquiry approach during the learning process. Prior to the unit, I used a plastic comb binding machine (pictured below) to create envelope books using 10 envelopes for each student's book: Envelope Books. During today's lesson, students will be working with the tenth, and last, envelope in their books. 

Vocabulary Cards

For each envelope, students are provided with up to 3 vocabulary cards: Vocabulary Cards (I copied these onto green card stock paper & cut each page into 10 cards): Vocabulary Cards. For easy distribution, I placed these cards into ziplock baggies so that each group of students could easily take cards out as needed: Vocabulary Cards in Bags. As an opening to the lesson, I write the following vocabulary words on the board: circumpolar constellations, seasonal constellations, and planisphere. 


Students work together with their partners to discover the meaning of each word, using their computers and/or dictionaries as resources. As students are ready, they share definitions out loud with the rest of the class. We discuss student findings and then I construct a student-friendly definition (using student input) for all students to record on their cards. This process is important for two reasons: (1) sometimes students record definitions that are difficult to understand due to complex language and (2) this also allows students to see how important it is to use multiple sources when conducting research. 

Here's an example of student vocabulary cards: Student Vocabulary Cards.


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show two video clips. 

Video Clip1: This video is about 8 minutes long. I only show about 2-3 minutes of this video by fast-forwarding through the less interesting parts. Prior to beginning the video, I discuss how photographers can capture footage over time a long period of time, such as a 10 hour period at night, in order to create a time lapse that can be shown in just a few minutes. I show this video clip in particular as students are able to observe how some stars seem to pivot around the North Star, Polaris. 



Video Clip 2: This 2-minute video is unique as students are able to see the location and movement of actual constellations. Again, this video helps student see how constellations seem to rotate around Polaris (from the Northern Hemisphere perspective). 



Developing a Guiding Question 

To support an inquiry-based learning model and Science & Engineering Practice 1 (Asking Questions and Defining Problems), I explain: Today, you will be learning about constellations. First, let's talk about the questions you have about constellations.  What guiding question do you think we should research today? Student questions include:

  • How do constellations change? 
  • How do constellations interact with the Earth? 
  • How can we use a planisphere to document how constellations change? 
  • How do constellations seem to change every night? 


As students share their thinking, I'm hoping that with some teacher guidance, students will reflect upon the vocabulary words and ask, "How do constellations move in the sky?" While students didn't ask this question directly, the question, "How do constellations seem to change every night?" is pretty close! 

Here's a video of this question-development process in action: Students Developing Guiding Question

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

Now that students have helped develop a guiding question, I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain how constellations move in the sky. 

Envelope Cover 

I continue on by passing out an envelope picture to each student: Envelope 10 Pictures. Pictures add an element of excitement to learning and they provide support for students who learn best using visual aids. 

I model how to add a few labels to the envelope picture (Labeling the Diagram). I first highlight the Big Dipper and explain: The Big Dipper is part of the constellation, Ursa Major, which means Bigger Bear. Then, I highlight Polaris and explain: Polaris, also called the North Star, is part of the Little Dipper, which is also called Ursa Minor, or smaller bear. 

On the front cover of the tenth envelope in student envelope books, I model how to paste the picture and write the investigative question for today's lesson: How do constellations move in the sky? (Student Envleope Example).

Fact-Based Argument Cards

For each envelope, students are provided with a Fact-Based Argument Card: Fact-Based Argument Cards (I copied these onto yellow card stock paper & cut each paper into 3 cards: Argument Cards). As I pass this card out to each student, I explain: At the end of today's lesson, you will each have the opportunity to construct a fact-based argument, explaining how constellations move in the sky. Remember, as scientists, it is important to make sure that your arguments and explanations are based on evidence and research findings! 

Teacher Note: By asking students to develop explanations based upon evidence and research findings, I am supporting Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

Explore Part 1

50 minutes

For the first part of the exploration process today, I want students to observe hourly, monthly, and yearly changes in constellations. Then, students will assemble and learn how to use a planisphere. 

Constellation Observations (25 min)

I pass out a copy of Tracking Star Movement to each student. I also share the following link with students, Interactive Star Chart, so that students can observe the movement of stars across the sky: 


I explain: Today, you will be using this interactive star chart to observe how stars move across the sky. Let's begin with how the sky changes on an hourly basis. 

Interactive Star Chart Display Settings

I make sure that student Display Settings are appropriately adjusted to today's date and time, 12 am (midnight), and the following display features are checked: constellations, constellation names, and grid. I limit the number of display features to make the chart less complicated! 

Observing the Hourly Movement of Cancer

Using a teacher example, Constellation Observations Teacher Model, I show students how to label the first set of three circles on their Tracking Star Movement handout. I begin by labeling the first circle, "12:00 am." I ask: If we are interested in tracking the movement of constellations on an hourly basis, what times should we observe next? (1:00 am and 2:00 am) Altogether, we label the next circles, "1:00 am" and "2:00 am." 

To provide further guidance, I ask students to draw a specific constellation, Cancer. I model how to change the time on the Interactive Star Chart to observe how Cancer appears to move in the sky every hour. 

After students collected data on Cancer's movement every hour, they write what they observe. Some students comment: 

  • I notice that Cancer moved across the sky in only 2-3 hours!
  • I notice that Cancer seems to move to the left as the hours passed. I think this is caused by the Earth's rotation.


Observing the Monthly Movement of Lynx

Next, with student input, I model how to label the next set of three circles. Notice the change in months.

  • Circle 1: 1-22-15, 12:00 am
  • Circle 2: 2-22-15, 12:00 am
  • Circle 3: 3-22-15, 12:00 am


Again, I provide students with a constellation to observe as some constellations move out of site, making it difficult for students to observe and record their specific locations! After modeling how to record observations in the first circle, student continue on with their partners by documenting the location of Lynx in February and March and completing their observations. 

Observing the Yearly Movement of Gemini

Finally, with student input, I model how to label the last set of three circles. Notice the change in years.

  • Circle 1: 1-22-15, 12:00 am
  • Circle 2: 1-22-16, 12:00 am
  • Circle 3: 1-22-17, 12:00 am


As a class, we document the location of Gemini in 2015 in the first circle. Then, students continue by recording the location of Gemini in 2016 and 2017 in the last two circles and making observations. 

Student Work 

Following this activity, we discuss student findings as a class. All students gained the understanding that stars/constellations seem to move in the sky and that this movement is most evident on an hourly and monthly basis. We discuss how this movement is called apparent motion as it is the movement of the Earth causing the stars to appear to be moving. We compare this scientific phenomenon to driving in a car (the houses and trees that you drive by can appear to be moving). Here are a few examples of student work during this time: 


Making a Planisphere (25 min)

This is the perfect opportunity to show students how to make their own star charts! Inspired by the following article on the Sky & Telescope website: Make a Star Wheel, I print a Star Wheel Disk on white card stock paper and a Star Wheel on colored card stock paper (light yellow, green, and blue for variety).

Using my teacher model (Star Wheel Teacher Model), I show students how to cut out the star wheel disk and how to insert the disk into the star wheel. Instead of stapling each planisphere, to save time, I show students how to place a couple pieces of tape to the star wheel edges (right where the white staple lines are located). I also ask students to highlight the daylight-saving time (summer hours) on the disk. 

We also discuss how the stars in the sky seem to move counter-clockwise. Turning the wheel over and over counter-clockwise, I ask students to explain what they notice. After some time, students observe: 

  • There are some constellations that you can always see, no matter what time of year. What are these constellations called? (circumpolar constellations) We then discuss and highlight the five circumpolar constellations: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia. 
  • There are also some constellations that you can only see for part of the year. What are these constellations called? (seasonal constellations) Students eagerly name some of the seasonal constellations, including Orion, Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Cetus.

How to Use a Planisphere

Finally, I show students how to use the planisphere by turning the star disk to the correct time and date and by holding the star wheel to indicate the correct direction that you're facing. For example, if you are facing north, the "Facing North" words should be closest to your body. Students can't wait to try their star wheels at home! 

I also show the following video to provide students with further information on their planispheres and how to use them. Now that students have collected background knowledge on the movement of constellations and have created their own planispheres, they are 100% engaged in this video! 

Explore Part 2

60 minutes

Now that students understand that constellations and stars appear to move across the night sky, I want students to begin researching how this actually happens! For this portion of the exploration process, I will use a model to demonstrate the difference between circumpolar and seasonal constellations. Next, the class will watch a video and will complete their own research using online resources. 

Demonstration (15 min)

To model how and why we see circumpolar constellations year-round and seasonal stars during certain seasons, I complete the following demonstration: Teacher Demonstration.

To prepare for this demonstration, I printed Constellation Pages and created posters for the constellations. I taped the seasonal constellation posters to one-inch binders: Folders with Seasonal Stars. For the circumpolar constellations poster, I taped the following posters front to back (Circumpolar Constellation Poster Side 1 and Circumpolar Constellation Poster Side 2) and attached a piece of fishing line to the poster so that these constellations could be suspended from the ceiling: All Season Constellations. I also created Arrow Cards to help students visualize the revolution of the Earth. 

I also created color-coded Season Cards and Day & Night Cards. For example, the summer constellation, Scorpius is mounted on yellow paper. The summer card and the day/night card are also yellow (Placement of Cards Around the Light). I’m hoping this will help students build connections.

When setting up for this demonstration (Demonstration Setup) I purposefully kept the cards flipped over. I want students to witness and take part in the demonstration process! Watching the construction of the model will help students construct an understanding of constellations. 

Following the demonstration, I ask students to turn and teach: Why can we see circumpolar stars year round, but seasonal stars during certain seasons?

During this time, I listen to student conversations and ask questions. Here, Students Discussing the Demonstration, two students explain how we would be able to all seasonal constellations throughout the year if it weren’t for our sun’s light. Then, one student connects this demonstration with her planisphere: Making Connections with the Star Wheel! I love listening to the students make their own applications and connections.

Student Research (45 min)

Now, students are ready to compete their own research on the movement of constellations! I pass out a copy of this Thematic Graphic Organizer. Without any prompting, students immediately ask, "Should we write our guiding question in the center?" I smile and respond: What a great idea! Students then wrote their guiding question, "How do constellations move in the sky?" in the middle of the paper. 


Knowing that the movement of constellations is a challenging concept to understand, I show the class the following video clip as one of their research resources today. This is where these complex science concepts began to make sense to students! During the video, we jot down a few notes as a class. I model this note-taking process projecting the following: Teacher Model of Graphic Organizer. Instead of this being a teacher-driven process, I ask students, What do you think is important? What facts help us answer our guiding question? 


Online Sources

Following the video, I email students a couple links to online resources for further research: 


Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

  1. What question are you researching? 
  2. What patterns have you noticed? 
  3. Why do you suppose ____? 
  4. What have you found so far? 
  5. Has your thinking changed? 
  6. What evidence do you have? 
  7. How did you decide _____?
  8. What conclusion can you draw about ____?

Student Conference

Here, Discussing Apparent Motion, the students share that they are confused about the following fact: "Because Earth turns west to east, the whole sky appears to turn east to west." I apply this complex idea to moving in a car. While you are moving one direction, the trees alongside the road appear to be moving the other direction. By relating this abstract idea to a well-known situation, these students began to make sense of this phenomenon. 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student research during this time: 

Reflect & Apply

15 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to apply their findings. For this reason, I invite students to use their research to answer the guiding question, "How do constellations move in the sky?" by writing a fact-based argument on one of their Fact-Based Argument Cards

I remind students once more: Remember, as scientists, it is important to make sure that your arguments and explanations are always based on evidence and research findings! 

To get students started, I provide the following writing prompt: Constellations appear to move in the sky.


As students begin to finish, I ask volunteers to share their arguments aloud. I also invite others to respectfully agree or disagree with other students' arguments as it is important for students to provide and receive critique from peers and to differentiate between arguments based on reasoned judgement and arguments based on research findings (Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence). 

Here, Student Sharing Argument, explains the difference between the movement of seasonal and circumpolar constellations. 

Student Work

Here are a couple examples of Fact-Based Argument Cards during this time: 


At the end of this lesson, students place the following items in today's envelope: