Connecting Shadows with the Sun's Altitude

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SWBAT expalin how the altitude of the sun affects shadows and temperatures throughout the year.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students explore the angle of the sun in the sky and how it affects the temperature and shadows on Earth using a computer simulation and researching an online text.

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 a video of a meteorologist explaining how the sun's angle changes throughout the day. Students then explore the sun's altitude and how it affects the temperature and shadows on Earth using a computer simulation and online text. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the sun's altitude by writing 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 4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data 

Students construct a graph of the sun's monthly altitude and compare it to a graph of average monthly temperatures. By evaluating the data, they begin to make connections between the angle of the sun in the sky and seasonal temperatures on Earth. 

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Crosscutting Concept 7: Stability and Change

Students research how the angle of the sun, average temperatures, and shadow lengths change over time. 

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 sun's altitude, temperatures, and shadows. 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 the sun's angle changes in the sky, 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!  


15 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 eighth 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: temperature, altitude, and concentrated. 

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. 

To help students understand altitude, I draw a picture on the board of the sun's altitude increasing in the Northern Hemisphere throughout the year: Altitude Diagram. This drawing was essential for student understanding of this word! Also, it was a great way to integrate math (the measurement of angles) with science! 

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 about the sun's altitude. First, let's talk about the questions you have about the sun's altitude. What guiding question do you think we should research today? Student questions include:

  • How does the temperature change in different altitudes? 
  • How does the sun's energy change over longer distances?
  • How does the amount of concentrated sunlight change the temperature outside? 
  • Does the temperature change if the sun is more concentrated? 


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 altitude of the sun affect shadows and temperatures throughout the year?" Sure enough, one student asks, "How does the sun's altitude change the way our shadows are throughout the year?" and another student adds on, "How does the sun's altitude change our shadows and the temperature?"

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

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

Now that students have helped develop a guiding question, I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain how the altitude of the sun affects shadows and temperatures throughout the year. 

Envelope Cover 

I continue on by passing out an envelope picture to each student: Envelope 8 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 eighth envelope in student envelope books, I model how to paste the picture and write the investigative question for today's lesson: How does the altitude of the sun affect shadows and temperatures throughout the year? (Student Example of 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 altitude of the sun affects shadows and temperatures throughout the year. 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 the following video of a news station weatherman explaining how the sun shines at different angles throughout the year.


Following the video, students get ready to continue exploring the guiding question! 


80 minutes

The Exploration Process

During the exploration process today, students complete three tasks: 

1) Observe the Position of the Sun in the Sky throughout the Year

2) Observe how our Shadows change throughout the Year

3) Read and Collect Ideas about the Sun's Altitude using an Online Text 

Motions of the Sun Simulator (Exploration Task 1)

To provide students with the opportunity to explore how the sun's altitude changes throughout the year I share the following link to the Motions of the Sun Simulator. I model how to change the date, time, and the observer's altitude. Our city of Bozeman, Montana is located at a latitude of about 46 degrees north. 

Making a Graph

I pass out a copy of Graphing The Sun's Altitude to each student and direct students' attention to the sun's altitude in the Information box at the bottom left hand corner of the Motions of the Sun Simulator. I then model how to use the simulator to graph the sun's monthly altitude by changing the month, while ensuring the day, time, and observer's latitude stay the same. After graphing the first couple of months together as a class, students were ready to continue this task on their own. 

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

During this conference, Students Making Connections, I love hearing the students so confidently make connections between past lessons and todays lesson. I wasn't expecting students to connect the sun's changing altitude with the tilt of the Earth so quickly! 

Color-Coding the Graph

A couple lessons ago, when students studied The Earth's Seasonal Patterns, students graphed the average monthly high temperatures for Bozeman, Montana: Student Temperature Graph. During that lesson, we colored the winter months blue, spring months pink, summer months yellow, and fall months orange so that students could easily see the connection between temperatures, seasons, and the Earth's revolution around the sun.

Today, I want students to make another connection between the seasons and the sun's altitude. After students have penciled in their bar graphs, I ask students to get out their temperature graphs and to color and label the months on their Sun Altitude graphs using the same colors: Student Altitude Graph

Immediately, students began seeing the bigger picture (Student Comparing Graphs) and begin commenting: 

  • "Both graphs keep going up and then they start going down."
  • "They are pretty similar." 
  • "At the highest point in each graph, that's summer for both of them."


As a class, students then determine: When the sun is at a higher altitude, we have higher temperatures. When the sun is at a lower altitude, we have lower temperatures. 

Shadow Observations (Exploration Task 2)

To help students connect how the sun's monthly position changes the lengths of shadows throughout the year, I hand out a copy of Shadow Observations (cut into thirds) to each student. I then show students how to use the Motions of the Sun Simulator to analyze how their shadows change throughout the year. As students are ready, they begin to write about their observations. I provide the following prompt to get students started: At midday (12:00 pm) in January, my shadow is... 

As students complete their observations (Examples: Student Shadow Observations 1 and Student Shadow Observations 2), some students volunteer to share their thinking out loud with the rest of the class. I love how this student, Shadow Observations, connects the sun's altitude with the flashlight investigation from yesterday! 

Online Research (Exploration Task 3)

Next, I pass out a Details Tree Graphic Organizer to each student and I share the following link research link: Angles of Sunlight Text. At this point, students are familiar with our research process and ask, "Should we write the guiding question in the box at the bottom of the page?" Their eagerness to learn makes me smile! I respond: Yes! What a great idea!

In no time, students begin reading the text out loud with their partners, in search of key information that will help them construct an evidence-based argument later on. 

Student Conference

During this conference, Discussing Direct Sunlight, the students and I discuss how the sunlight is more concentrated and direct in the summer, causing shorter shadows and higher temperatures. It can certainly be difficult to make the connection between all of these factors and concepts, however, by learning about them in a variety of ways (computer simulation, hands on investigations, diagrams, online research, and developing written explanations), students begin to develop a deeper understanding at their own pace.

Student Work

Here's a couple examples of student notes during this time. While constructing evidence-based arguments, students will reflect upon these notes and other exploration experiences to develop an answer to today's guiding question. 

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 does the altitude of the sun affect shadows and temperatures throughout the year?" 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: The altitude (angle) of the sun affects are our shadows and temperatures throughout the year. 


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's an example of a student sharing his beautifully written argument out loud: Student Sharing Explanation.

Student Work

Here are a couple examples of Fact-Based Argument Cards during this time. This is a challenging explanation to write, but students do a great job using the exploration process to support their ideas. 


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