Apparent Motion of the Sun Lab

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SWBAT complete a lab diagramming the path of the Sun at different points of the year (including shadow distance, seasonal changes, and insolation height at different times of the year) [LAB][2 days]

Big Idea

Students complete a computer-based laboratory simulation of the Sun's path at different latitudes and at different times of the year in this two-day lab

Lesson Introduction

[Note: For embedded comments, checks for understanding (CFUs), and key additional information on transitions and key parts of the lesson not necessarily included in the below narrative, please go to the comments in the following document: 4.4 - Apparent Motion of the Sun Lab [Entire Lesson w/comments]. Additionally, if you would like all of the resources together in a PDF document, that can be accessed as a complete resource here: 4.4 - Apparent Motion of the Sun Lab [Whole Lesson]. Finally, students may need their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] for parts of the lesson (a document used widely in the New York State Earth Science Regents course) as well.]

This lesson is a computer-based exploration and simulation of the Sun's positions at various latitudes and different times of the day and year. The website itself is fairly comprehensive in what it provides and allows students to do, and the associated student information sheet is generally very clear in exactly how students are to proceed. Students work their way through various simulations and animations, diagraming and recording their observations and collected data.

As some final notes, if you need to reserve mobile computer carts or take students to a computer and/or laboratory room, you might want to reserve the time over two days (or provide additional, supplementary time for a few students who might need some extra support). Additionally, I think it's important to take the 10-15 minutes to explore the website for yourself, as it's pretty complex, and students will inevitably have misunderstandings and questions. 

Materials Needed:

  • Computers w/Internet access


Do Now & Objective(s)

10 minutes

Students come in silently and complete the (attached) Do Now. In this case, the Do Now is a review of material from Unit 3 (Geologic History), in preparation for the upcoming interim assessment. After time expires (anywhere from 2-4 minutes depending on the type of Do Now and number of questions), we collectively go over the responses (usually involving a series of cold calls and/or volunteers), before I call on a student and ask them to read the objective out loud to start the lesson.

As a general note, the Do Now serves a few purposes:

  1. It serves as a general review of the previous day's material; (again, this is a bit different, as they are reviewing for the quarterly Interim Assessment)
  2. It is a re-activation of student knowledge to get them back into "student mode" and get them thinking about science after transitioning from another content area or alternate class;
  3. as a strategy for reviewing material students have struggled with (for example, using this as a focused review for material that they have struggled with on unit assessments or recent quizzes); and,
  4. It is an efficient and established routine for entering the classroom that is repeated each day with fidelity (I never let students enter the classroom talking. While it may seem potentially severe to have students enter silently each day, this is both a school wide expectation and a key component of my classroom. In many respects, I find that students readily enjoy the focus that starting with a quiet classrooms brings each day).

Introduction & Rubric

7 minutes

In the initial stage of the lesson, I provide students with the Introduction and Scoring & Evaluation Rubric, so they know what they'll be expected to provide. I have students read the initial page of the Introduction as a class (I use my 'Control the Game' reading strategy, which basically involves me using popsicle sticks [with student names] or cold-calling on random students to read at random intervals. When a new student is named, that student takes over, while everyone else silently reads along). 

I then ask a question involving have students differentiate between apparent and actual motions of the Sun by thinking out and writing the answer to a question (the 'S+J' in the resource stands for 'Stop and Jot'). We then review the three (3) key principles listed on the first page of the Introduction, which include the notion that:

  1. The Earth rotates one time in 24 hours
  2. The Earth revolves around the Sun in approximately 365 days – this causes our year
  3. The Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5°, which causes differences in the appearance and intensity of insolation (sunlight) throughout the year

We then briefly cover the directions, with the important note that there are specific symbols present in the laboratory resource that require students to either check off their work, or record observations and answers in their resource. 

Before asking them to begin, I give them a minute to quietly look over the rubric and answer any and all questions that students have.

Lab-based Computer Time

35 minutes

[Note: Unlike most of my lessons, there are no embedded comments in this document. This is entirely made for student use. Some additional context and notes are below]

In setting up this section for student success, (see reflection for additional context here), I have the computers (or laptops, if you're using a mobile lab like I do) already ready for students. At this point, I allow them to log on, get online, and go to the website on the first page of the Lab-based Lesson Guide resource.

[Note: Sometimes, it's difficult for students to access the site via entering the exact URL into Google, because if they enter it wrong, it won't take them to the correct page. A better and more effective strategy is to have them enter a term in the Google/search engine bar that brings up the desired website in one of the top results. When I did this with my class, I had them just enter the term "Insolation animation" into Google, and it was (at least at the time), the second result on the page. I find this strategy much more effective for getting students to the correct webpage]

Quite honestly, after students begin, most of the rest of the lesson is student-driven. The Lab-based Lesson Guide takes them through - I make sure students are checking off and recording the appropriate data as necessary. As I mention in my reflection, it's also important to actively monitor this process, and make sure you as the teacher are familiar with the resource, because it is complicated, and there are a lot of clickable options available for students to confuse themselves with! 


5 minutes

Unlike most of my other lessons, there is no exit ticket associated with this lesson. In the last few minutes of class, I definitely want to have the room ready for either my next period, or an alternate class that might be using the room (I share a room with another science teacher, which makes clean up all the more important at the end of the period). Since this lab is can create material complications with the putting away of computers via mobile computer carts (they all have to be sorted and plugged into the cart, which takes some time) I usually assign 2-3 students to collecting, sorting, and organizing all the laptops in preparation for the next class.

I generally say this in all my lab-based lessons, but I think it's always important to: 1.) save more time than you think you need and 2.) have a hard stop at the end of a lab. Once that time is reached, no lab or computer work should continue. If you're a student in the room, you immediately have to begin the process of shutting down your computer and cleaning up your work space. Since, as mentioned above, I also share a classroom, I also give them some time to make sure they're all prepared for transitioning out of the room. 

In the last minute or so, I utilize the same procedure I do on non-lab days, which is to ask the students time to think about their self-mastery of the objective (which is posted on the whiteboard), through some guided questions:

  1. Do you feel that you mastered the objective for the day?
  2. Can you reiterate one thing you learned about ____________ (in this case, something like "What do you think we modeled in this lab?" or a procedural question like "How was it working together today?", etc.)

Once I take 2-3 individual responses (sometimes I'll ask for a binary "thumbs up/thumbs down" or something similar), I have students leave once the bell rings.