Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science
Order out of Chaos: Our Solar System Children’s Ideas About the Solar System
Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (see the Session 1 Children’s Ideas Bibliography). Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this?
1. Children’s theories of the origin of the solar system and the Earth include: 1) the solar system has always been there 2) the Sun collided with another celestial body to create the planets and 3) the origin of the Earth involved explosions or collisions of stars and galaxies.
The solar system formed from a cloud of dust and gas that, as gravity brought the material closer together, began to spin. This cloud eventually collapsed into a flat disk, and the planets formed through the accretion, or accumulation, of matter, which further coalesced into individual planets. The use of the term “Big Bang” may skew children’s ideas about the Earth’s beginnings, but the term does remind us that there was an event which started the universe’s growth, and that the universe is still expanding today. Children’s limited perception of the passage of time can influence their ideas of the permanence or ‘forever-ness’ of the solar system.
2. Earth is flat and motionless.
The Earth, like the other planets, is spherical in shape. This is why, even with the strongest telescope, we can’t see straight across from one end of the country to the other. The Earth is not motionless — as with every other planet in our solar system, the Earth rotates on its axis and orbits the Sun. The fact that we cannot feel any motion as Earth rotates perpetuates the perspective that the Earth is motionless. Evidence of movement, like night and day and the seasons, help us understand otherwise.
- Marques, L. and Thompson, D. “Portuguese Students’ Understanding at Ages 10, 11, and 14 – 15 of the Origin and Nature of the Earth and the Development of Life.” Research in Science and Technological Education 15, no 1 (1997): 20 – 51.
- Sadler, P. “Misconceptions in Astronomy.” The Second Proceedings of the International Seminar on Misconceptions in Science and Mathematics. Ithaca, NY: Department of Education, Cornell University, 1987.
- Samarapungavan, A., Vosniadou, S. and Brewer, W. “Mental Models of the Earth, Sun and Moon: Indian Children’s Cosmologies.” Cognitive Development 11, no 4 (1996): 491 – 512.
- Sharpe, J. “Children’s Astronomical Beliefs: A Preliminary Study of Year 6 Children in Southwest England.” International Journal of Science Education 18, no 6 (1996): 685 – 712.
- Vosniadou, S. “Conceptual Development in Astronomy,” in The Psychology of Learning Science, edited by Glynn, Yeany, and Britton. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.
Session 1 Earth’s Solid Membrane: Soil
How does soil appear on a newly born, barren volcanic island? In this session, participants explore how soil is formed, its role in certain Earth processes, its composition and structure, and its place in the structure of the Earth.
Session 2 Every Rock Tells A Story
How can we use rocks to understand events in the Earth's past? In this session, participants explore the processes that form sedimentary rocks, learn how fossils are preserved, and are introduced to the theory of plate tectonics.
Session 3 Journey to the Earth’s Interior
How do we know what the interior of the Earth is like if we've never been there? In this session, participants examine the internal structure of the Earth and learn how it is possible for entire continents to move across its surface.
Session 4 The Engine That Drives the Earth
What drives the movement of tectonic plates? In this session, participants learn how plates interact at plate margins, how volcanoes work, and the story of Hawaii's formation.
Session 5 When Continents Collide
How is it possible that marine fossils are found on Mount Everest, the world's highest continental mountain? In this session, participants learn what happens when continents collide and how this process shapes the surface of the Earth.
Session 6 Restless Landscapes
If almost all mountains are formed the same way, why do they look so different? In this session, participants learn about the forces continually at work on the surface of the Earth that sculpt the ever-changing landscape.
Session 7 Our Nearest Neighbor: The Moon
Why is the Moon, our nearest neighbor in the solar system, so different from the Earth? In this session, participants explore the complex connections between the Earth and Moon, the origin of the Moon, and the roles played by gravity and collisions in the Earth-Moon system.
Session 8 Order out of Chaos: Our Solar System
Why do all the planets orbit the Sun in the same direction and why are the planets closest to the Sun so different from the gas giants farther out? In this session, participants gain a better understanding of the nature of the solar system by examining its formation.