Creative ideas to teach primary physics: Stars and space

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The new science curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 encourages a variety of approaches to pupils’ scientific investigations – but how creative can you be in a subject where the boundaries are so fixed?

Ed Walsh takes a look at the many opportunities to think and work creatively within the constraints of the primary physics topic, Stars and Space.

It is true that in science, especially primary science, the outcomes of activities are often set and closed. Pupils are expected to get the ‘right’ answer, and if they do so, their experiment is deemed to have succeeded. Unfortunately, this may result in children developing the idea that science is a set body of knowledge, and as such, exploration is pointless, since it’ll simply take them to the same conclusions other people have already found – an attitude which is the complete antithesis of scientific thinking!

The key is to remember that working creatively isn’t – and shouldn’t be – counterposed to working under constraints. In fact, some of the most creative responses that society has produced has been in response to some very challenging constraints. The original brief for the Citroen 2CV car, for example, included being able to safely transport a basket of eggs across a ploughed field.

Likewise, in science, there are constraints. Some of these are absolute, whereas others arise from what’s safe, practical and affordable in a primary school. Creativity can be a response to these.

Activities to foster creativity in science

Below are a selection of activities and ideas to promote creative thinking in primary science. I have chosen the topic of ‘Stars and Space’, because the physics area of the KS1 and 2 curriculum is sometimes the part that teachers feel less confident with. (For creative ideas to teach other physics topics, see my full article here).

A careful reading of the programme of study for this topic reveals that it is less about collating information on stars, planets etc. and more about using models to produce explanations – such as how ideas about the Solar System have changed over the years, and the factors that cause day and night and determine its length. Therefore, the activities presented here focus less on imparting knowledge and more on exploring ideas and developing pupils as scientists.

Naming constellations

Having recently moved out into the countryside and to an area with very little light pollution, the night sky truly is a wonder to behold. People of ancient civilisations named constellations because they recognised the regular pattern of stars and, within that, certain arrangements. The constellations are a way of navigating the night sky, and naming them is a clever way of learning your way around. Our modern constellation system comes from the ancient Greeks, who named them after characters from their stories and fables – characters that were familiar to their culture.

What might we use in the 21st century to name the same patterns? A tumble drier? An ice cream scoop? A top hat? Pupils can be supplied with drawings showing the arrangement of stars in a variety of constellations and asked to use their imagination to suggest modern names. Show a few examples of traditional constellations, such as Orion, and let pupils see that they shouldn’t be too constrained by the precise shape.

This is not simply an exercise in ‘what does this look a bit like?’. A key learning point, and one that takes people quite a time to appreciate, is that when we look out at the universe, we do so from a particular perspective – that of the Earth. Constellations look as if they consist of stars that are close together, but this isn’t necessarily true. Standing outside a field, a gatepost close to you may seem to be lined up with a telegraph pole on the far edge, yet the pole is much further away. It also draws out a key skill in science – that of looking for patterns and exceptions. Stars appear in the same pattern night after night, but the planets ‘wander around’, and it was this that first alerted observers to their different nature (in fact, the word ‘planet’ means ‘wanderer’).

Exploring the constellations also provides a way into the stories attached to their traditional names. A useful resource in exploring the night sky and the myths behind the constellations is the freely downloadable Stellarium program, which can be installed on a PC. This open source planetarium for your computer displays the sky visible from any place on any date, shows features such as planets and satellites, and superimposes mythical creatures onto the constellations. This will help your pupils see the night sky in a different way – as a reference to past cultures and the inspiration for their own stories.

What would happen if the Earth rotated more slowly?

Pupils learn that the Earth rotates upon its axis once every 24 hours. They may also find out that other planets rotate more rapidly (Jupiter, for example, which rotates once every ten hours) and others more slowly (like Venus, which rotates once every 243 Earth days). Ask though, what would happen if the Earth rotated, say, once every 48 hours? How would we adapt to a 48 hour day? How would the apparent motion of the sun alter? What might happen to temperatures if the land heats up during day time and cools down at night-time? Would we move more slowly to conserve energy, sleep in the middle of the day or have more meals to sustain us? What about animals such as owls that hunt at dusk – would a longer dusk make things easier or fewer dusks in a year make them harder?

This picks up on ideas, not only about what causes day and night, but linking to other contexts such as conditions for plant growth and adaptation. Discussion might reveal evidence for misconceptions, such as the notion that it’s the rotation of the Earth that causes gravity and thus we’d be lighter on a planet that rotated slower. You might also like to explore the idea that life has adapted to fit the prevalent conditions, and if these change, so would life. Pupils are likely to come up with other implications and might want to explore questions such as ‘Would the tides change?’, ‘Would the wind blow harder?’ and ‘Would the seasons change?’. Such an activity requires pupils to think widely and creatively, using scientific ideas and their imagination to envisage a world different to our own.

Building a Moon station

Once again, talk of manned space missions is circulating. Thinking about a Moon (or Mars) station is a prompt to consider not only what it would look like but also to link into pupils’ understanding of the conditions necessary for healthy living. Keeping people alive needs water, food and oxygen, but people also need to stay fit and healthy. Weighing less means that movement is easier, so muscles may deteriorate.

There are opportunities for research here – exercise machines were first developed for use on naval vessels where space was at a premium but people needed to be fit. One of the possible learning activities is to ask some pupils to write a tourists’ guide for a holiday on the Moon, looking at the advice that might be useful (length of day and speed of change from day to night, for example), drawing attention to the most striking points (much less weight and no bad weather, for example) and offering guidance about what to prepare against (glare from the Sun and lack of atmosphere, for example) – a different sort of Lonely Planet guide.

The primary science curriculum has its constraints, but it is the ability to think creatively and widely within those boundaries that sets our pupils on the path to becoming scientists.

Ed Walsh is a science adviser for Cornwall Learning.

> Looking for more creative ideas to teach primary physics? See Ed Walsh’s full article, Stars, sounds and simple circuits, available for free to subscribers of the Creative Teaching & Learning Service.

Creative Teaching & Learning