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Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™: How Can We Use the Sky to Navigate? 3-Use Module

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Grade 5. Module Highlights: In 15 lessons over 21 class sessions, students observe phenomena of ships disappearing below the horizon, shadows pointing in different directions, and balls falling to Earth. Students use these observations as well as models as evidence that gravity is directed to the center of a spherical Earth. Students use models as well as observations of shadows and stars to make a claim that Earth rotates once on an axis every 24 hours. Students carry out an investigation to determine the times of the year that different constellations are not visible and use the data to develop a model of Earth revolving around the Sun once a year. After learning the daily and annual patterns of motion of the Sun and stars, students consider the problem of using those patterns to navigate. Students discover that the altitude of Polaris is the latitude of the observer's location. Students carry out an investigation to compare two solutions for finding the altitude of Polaris in the night sky. Finally, students are presented with the sweet potato mystery. Did ancient Polynesians sail from the Marquesas Islands to Peru and bring back the sweet potato? Students use the sky to navigate an imaginary boat and use the experience to support an argument about the mystery.

This module includes a teacher guide, 16 Smithsonian Science Stories student readers, and enough materials for 32 students to use 3 times.

Alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards*
Performance Expectations

  • 5-ESS1-1: Support an argument that differences in the apparent brightness of the Sun compared to other stars is due to their relative distances from the Earth.
  • 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.
  • 5-PS2-1: Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down.
  • 3-5-ETS1-1: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Disciplinary Core Ideas
ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars

  • The Sun is a star that appears larger and brighter than other stars because it is closer. Stars range greatly in their distance from Earth.

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.

PS2.B: Types of Interactions

  • The gravitational force of Earth acting on an object near Earth's surface pulls that object toward the planet's center.

ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

  • Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution**

  • Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints.

**Indicates a DCI that is addressed in the module but not summatively assessed.

Science and Engineering Practices

  • Developing and using models
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Constructing explanations
  • Engaging in argument from evidence


  • Defining problems
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Designing solutions
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Crosscutting Concepts

  • Patterns
  • Cause and effect
  • Scale, proportion, and quantity


  • Systems and system models

Concepts and Practices Storyline
Focus Questions and Lesson Summaries
Focus Question 1: What is the evidence for a spherical Earth?
Lesson 1: Set Sail

Ships sailing at the horizon provide evidence that Earth is spherical.
Students use a model to compare a ship sailing away from an observer on a spherical and flat Earth in order to explain why a ship disappears at the horizon.
Lesson 2: Boston and Santiago
Shadows provide evidence that Earth is spherical.
Students use a model to argue that the variation in the direction and length of shadows on Earth is caused by Earth's spherical shape.
Lesson 3: Gravity Around the World
Gravity is a force directed toward the center of a spherical Earth.
Students develop a model to show the pattern of gravity around Earth. Students use the model as evidence to argue that gravity is a force directed toward the center of a spherical Earth.

Focus Question 2: How can we explain daily observations of the sky?
Lesson 4: Distances Can Be Deceiving

The Sun appears larger and brighter than other stars because it is closer.
Students use a model to explain how distance impacts the apparent size of objects, then argue from evidence that the Sun appears larger and brighter than other stars because it is closer.
Lesson 5: Moving Shadows
The Sun's daily motion provides evidence that Earth rotates on an axis.
Students observe and then model how the Sun's daily pattern of motion causes changes in shadows over the course of a day. Students use a model to explain how the rotation of Earth on its axis causes these changes in shadows and the Sun's daily pattern of motion.
Lesson 6: Pictures in the Sky
The daily motion of the stars provides evidence that Earth rotates on an axis.
Students analyze and interpret the motion of different constellations over the course of the night to find the stars' daily pattern of motion. Students use evidence of the Sun and stars' daily pattern of motion to support the claim that Earth rotates on an axis.

Focus Question 3: What causes the annual patterns of motion of the Sun and stars?
Lesson 7: Where Is Orion?

Some constellations are not visible all year.
Students carry out an investigation to identify the pattern of a constellation's movement throughout the year, including when the constellation is not visible in the night sky. Students develop and use a model to explain that the cause of disappearing constellations is Earth's revolution around the Sun.
Lesson 8: Modeling Daylight
Earth's revolution around the Sun causes variation in daylight.
Students use a model to measure the proportion of a day that the school's location will experience daylight on June 21, September 21, December 21, and March 21.
Lesson 9: It’s Been a Long Day
Earth's revolution around the Sun causes variation in daylight.
Students graph the amount of daylight on the 21st day of each month and explain that the annual pattern of daylight is caused by Earth's rotation on a tilted axis and Earth's revolution around the Sun.

Focus Question 4: How are tools and systems used to navigate?
Lesson 10: Where on Earth?

Predictable patterns in the night sky can be used to solve a navigational problem.
Students use a model to collect star altitude data and interpret class data to identify the pattern that Polaris's altitude at a location is the same as the location's latitude.
Lesson 11: Things Are Looking Up
Solutions to problems are designed to meet criteria and constraints and must be tested to determine which best meets them.
Students carry out an investigation to determine which of two solutions is better for measuring the altitude of Polaris.
Lesson 12: Finding the Way
Solutions to problems are designed to meet criteria and constraints but must be implemented correctly to be successful.
Students obtain information from a reading to identify a navigational problem and solutions that are designed around patterns in the sky.

Science Challenge
Focus Question 5: How could ancient Polynesians navigate the ocean without instruments?
Lesson 13: Sweet Potato Mystery Part 1

Ancient Polynesians navigated the ocean without instruments.
Students obtain information from text to use as evidence to support a claim about ancient Polynesians sailing from the Marquesas Islands to Peru, including an estimate of the length of time for the journey.
Lesson 14: Sweet Potato Mystery Part 2
Observations of the sky can be used to navigate a boat.
Students develop models to show how to navigate a boat based on the pattern of the Sun's apparent daily motion. Students use mathematics to find the latitude of the boat's location by measuring the altitude of the Sun and stars.
Lesson 15: Sweet Potato Mystery Part 3
Scientific arguments are based on evidence.
Students engage in argument about the plausibility of Polynesians sailing long distances without instruments by using evidence that the patterns of the Sun and stars can be used to navigate.

*Next Generation Science Standards® is a registered trademark of WestEd. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.


What’s Included:
  • How Can We Use the Sky to Navigate? Teacher Guide
  • 10 How Can We Use the Sky to Navigate? Student Activity Guide
  • 16 Smithsonian Science Stories Literacy Series™: Sailing Under the Stars
  • 1 Digital Access to Teacher Guide and Student Literacy (for 32 students)
  • 1 Ball, Inflatable, 11", Yellow
  • 2 Card Set, Sailing to Peru, Set of 4
  • 16 Card Set, Ship, Set of 2
  • 10 Dowel Rod, 1/4 x 12"
  • 10 Fiberglass Tape Measure
  • 8 Flashlight, LED (with batteries)
  • 8 Globe, Inflatable, with Stand
  • 1 Group Role Poster, 24 x 36"
  • 1 Inflating Pump
  • 3 Pad, Cardboard, 8-1/2 x 11"
  • 17 Protractor, Plastic, 6"
  • 5 Putty, Adhesive, 2 oz
  • 12 Sphere, Styrene (Dialite foam), 7.5 cm (3")
  • 3 Starry Night Voucher Pack (access for up to 35 devices)
  • 60 Straw, Drinking, Transparent, 7-3/4"
  • 1 String, Super Twine, 200-ft Roll
  • 16 Student Star Guide
  • 16 Tennis Ball
  • 250 Toothpick, Round
  • 25 Washer, Flat, USS, 5/16"
Return Policy:

If for any reason you are not satisfied with this item, it is eligible for a return, exchange, refund, or credit up to 180 days from date of purchase. Restrictions may apply. Returns & Exchanges Policy.