Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science
Our Nearest Neighbor: The Moon Children’s Ideas About the Moon
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. The Moon is much like the Earth.
Young children base knowledge primarily on experience. All of children’s experiences are limited to the Earth, so when they think about the Moon and other planets, their perception is restricted. The Moon is similar to Earth in some ways, but is mostly quite different. Unlike the Earth, the Moon has little or no iron core. Its mass is 1/100th the mass of the Earth, with one consequence being that the Moon cannot hold an atmosphere onto its surface. The Moon is made of rock material that is similar to that which makes up Earth’s mantle, the Moon is not tectonically active.
2. The Earth, Sun, and Moon are all about the same size, or are about half or double of each other’s diameters.
The Moon’s diameter is roughly one-quarter of Earth’s diameter. Although the Sun and the Moon appear to be approximately the same size in the sky, the Moon is actually about 400 times smaller in diameter than the Sun. It is the similarity of the apparent sizes of the Moon and Sun to the naked eye that contributes to the belief that the Earth, Moon, and Sun are all close in size.
3. Students think the Sun and Moon are much closer to the Earth than they actually are.
Large numbers and vast distances are hard for everyone to comprehend, especially children. The apparent sizes of the Moon and the Sun can easily mislead children when they think about the distances between the Earth and these two solar bodies. The Moon is about 30 Earth diameters away from the Earth. The Sun is almost 12,000 Earth diameters away from Earth.
4. There is no gravity on the Moon.
Anything with mass has gravity. Compared to the Earth, the Moon has much less gravity because it is made up of, for the most part, light materials and has a relatively low mass. The moon attracts objects at its surface with 1/6 the force of Earth’s. Textbooks often mention that Earth’s gravitational force holds the atmosphere to it. The knowledge that the Moon has no atmosphere can contribute to children’s confusion about the Moon’s gravity.
5. There is no gravity in space.
There is no place in the universe that has no gravity. Everything that has mass in the universe is exerting gravitational force. If there were no gravity in space, then moons would not orbit planets, and planets would not orbit stars. The common conception that air is necessary for gravity can mislead children to believe that there is no gravity in space. This belief can persist through high school.
- Grossman, M., Peritz, J., Shapiro, I. and Ward. R.B. “Exploring the Moon and Stars: Cycles, Phases and Patterns,” in Aries: Astronomy-Based Physical Science, Teacher’s Edition. Cambridge, MA: Charlesbridge Press, 2002.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stead, K. and Osborne, R. “What is Gravity: Some Children’s Ideas. ” New Zealand Science Teacher 30 (1981): 5 – 12.
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.