Measuring Time as the Earth Rotates and Revolves

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SWBAT explain how we can measure time as the Earth rotates and revolves.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students construct a Sun, Earth, & Moon model to demonstrate the rotation and revolution of Earth. Students also conduct online research to explore the relationships between Earth's motions and the measurement of time.

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 demonstrating how to build a Sun, Earth, & Moon model and showing videos of rotation and revolution. Students then explore how the revolution and rotation of Earth helps measure passing time. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the Earth's rotation and revolution by constructing evidence-based arguments. 

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 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence 

Students construct arguments about the Earth's motions based on evidence. Students also provide and receive critiques from peers. 

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Crosscutting Concept 1: Patterns 

Students study patterns related to time and the Earth's motions. 

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 Earth's motion and the passing of time. 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 the rotation and revolution of Earth, 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

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 fifth envelope in their books. 

Making a Sun, Earth, & Moon Model

To help students demonstrate the Earth's rotation and revolution I want students to construct a Sun, Earth, & Moon Model. I hand out a copy of this handout for each student (on white card stock paper) as well as two brass fasteners. After students have finished coloring the Sun, Earth, and Moon, I invite them to the back table so I can explain how to put the model together: Building the Model.

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: rotate and revolve. 

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.

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 how the Earth moves.  Think about the vocabulary words that we've discussed so far and think about what they have to do with the Earth's motion. What guiding question do you think we should research today? Student questions include:

  • Does the moon rotate? 
  • How does the Earth rotate and revolve around the sun? 
  • Why does the Earth rotate? 


As students share their thinking, I'm hoping that with some teacher guidance, students will reflect upon the vocabulary words and ask, "How does the Earth rotate and revolve?" and "How can the motions of Earth be used to measure time?" The students came up with the first question rather quickly. The second question took a bit more time! 

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

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

Now that students have helped develop a guiding question, I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain how we can measure time as the Earth rotates and revolves. 

Envelope Cover 

I continue on by passing out an envelope picture to each student: Envelope 5 Pictures. Pictures add an element of excitement to learning and they provide support for students who learn best using visual aids. 

On the front cover of the fifth envelope in student envelope books, I model how to paste the picture and write the investigative questions for today's lesson: How does the Earth rotate and revolve? How can the motions of Earth be used to measure time? (Example of Student Envelope).

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 the Earth rotates and revolves as well as how these motions can be used to measure time. 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.


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show students three video clips that will help students visualize how the Sun, Earth, and moon interact. After each video clip, students will use their Sun, Earth, & Moon Model to turn and teach what they've learned about rotating and revolving. 

Observing Earth Rotating

As I play the following video clip, I ask: In the is video, is the Earth rotating or revolving? The responses are half and half. I ask for a student to share his thinking, “It’s rotating.” How do you know? “Because it’s not orbiting something. Well, it is, but you can’t see it.” What is the meaning of rotate? Another student volunteers, “To go in circles.” On an axis, right… to turn or spin on an axis. Does it look like the Earth is spinning in the video? Use your model to explain how the Earth rotates on its axis. Here's this class discussion and students turning and teaching on video: Students Discussing the Rotating Earth.


Observing the Moon Revolving

Next, we watch a video on the Moon revolving around the Earth. I ask: What is the Earth doing? Student respond, "The Earth is rotating, which means spinning in circles." Talk to me about the Moon! What is the moon doing? "The moon is orbiting." It is! The moon is orbiting what? "The Earth." What is another name for orbiting? Re... "Revolving!" Use your model. Turn and teach the difference between rotate and revolve. Talk about the Moon and the Earth. Here's this class discusion on video: Class Discussion about the Moon and Earth. In this video, Students Turning and Teaching, the students successfully use their models to explain how the Earth is rotating in the video, but the Moon is revolving.


Observing the Earth Revolving

Finally, we watch a video on the Earth revolving around the Sun. I ask: Raise your hand if you can tell me what's happening in the video. A student volunteers, "The Earth is spinning around the sun." Okay, so the Earth is spinning. What's the fancy word for the Earth spinning? "Rotating." But the Earth is also going around an object. What's that called? "Revolving." Remember, revolving is a fancy word for orbiting. Okay, use your model to explain how the Earth is rotating and revolving. Here's this discussion on video: Students Discussing the Earth Rotating & Revolving. Thereafter, students turn and talk using their models: Students Turning & Talking about the Earth's Rotation and Revolution


At this point, students are ready to continue research with their partners. 


30 minutes

Getting Ready

To provide students with the opportunity to explore the Earth's motions, I hand out a copy of this T-Chart Graphic Organizer to each student. I also email the following links to students to ensure ALL students are able to successfully find information that will help answer today's guiding question.

  • Time & Seasons, pages 190 & 192 (This the best resource for finding information on the Earth's motion and the measurement of time.)
  • Time Zones & How They Work Video (This video, also inserted below, helps students understand timezones and the rotation of the Earth.)



Graphic Organizer

Today, I want students to use the T-Chart Graphic Organizer to compare the rotation and revolution of the Earth, so I model (Creating Headings) how to create the following headings for each side of the t-chart: How Earth Rotates & How Earth Revolves. To add one more layer of support, I draw a picture of the Earth rotating and revolving above each of the headings. 

In addition, I show students how to create a space at the bottom of the page for notes on measuring time: Measuring Time Notes. I want students to purposefully find how the Earth's rotation and revolution helps measure time (days and years). 

Teacher Note: In hindsight, I wish I would not have created a space for notes on measuring time. This became a little confusing to students as they struggled with differentiating between notes on "How the Earth Rotates" and how this rotation helps with "Measuring Time." Students naturally took notes on measuring time without having a separate (and confusing) section! 

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 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 Conferences

During this conference, Discussing the Earth's Rotation and Revolution, the students explain how the Earth's rotation is a measurement of one day and a how the Earth's revolution is a measurement of one year. I love that they have the hands-on model to explain their thinking! 

Here, Conferencing with Students, I ask the students to get two protractors so that they can make further sense of the fact that the Earth rotates 15 degrees every hour. I really liked seeing one student complete the math in his notes: 15 x 24 = 360 degrees. This is a perfect example of how math is an integral part of science. 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student notes during this time. Most students were successful at finding the connections between the rotation of Earth, revolution of Earth, and the measurements of time: 

Reflect & Apply

20 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 questions (How does the Earth rotate and revolve? How can the motions of Earth be used to measure time?) by writing a fact-based argument on one of their Fact-Based Argument Cards

To get students started, I provide the following writing prompt: Did you know that the Earth rotates and revolves? 

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! 


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 her Argument, I encourage this student to slow down a bit in order for the rest of the class to analyze the strength of her argument. 

After this student shares, Student Sharing his Argument, I ask him to add on a few more details about Earth's revolution and rotation as well as the passing of time (which will help him communicate the answer to our guiding question of the day).

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: