Suzanne Buckley, BHP Teacher
For our Unit 4 project, we wanted to build a model of the Solar System, much like the one outlined in this activity from Lesson 4.4. The challenge: We wanted to build it to scale. Not only did we want the sizes of each planet or moon to be to scale of the originals; we wanted the distance between them to follow a scale representing the actual distances. Sounds easy—it turned out to be anything but.
The first task was to distribute among our 18 eighth-graders the various planets and moons. Students spent a couple days researching them— their sizes, their characteristics and their place in the Solar System. Then, they sat down to figure out a scale that would work both for distances between and for the corresponding sizes of their planets.
The obvious initial problem was that if the Sun were in the room, nothing else could be seen. One of my students complained, “I can’t make a Neptune that’s the size of a dot!” The solution they came up with was to allow only a tiny portion of the Sun to peep into the room from a corner of the ceiling. That made it possible to come up with a scale of size and distance that allowed everything to be visible. (We also realized that this model would have to live on the classroom ceiling, as our classroom is already filled to the brim with other ambitious projects!)
The next job was to make the planets and moons. A day of messy papier-mâché and paintwork accomplished that. Then, the orbits were charted out on the ceiling (ladders, laughter, near disasters!), and after drilling holes for hooks (more chaos!) the Solar System members were installed (carefully avoiding the ceiling fans, which fortunately didn’t interrupt our scale).
Our photo doesn’t give that good an idea of the scale because we couldn’t figure out how to take a picture that showed the whole thing (another challenge of scale)—anyway, it gives an idea!
When our Solar System was finally installed, everyone was so proud. It continues to hang overhead and just a glance up reminds us of so many things—the importance of the Sun, the role of gravity, the smallness yet importance of the Earth. It continues to give us food for thought and topics for conversation. It is a permanent addition to our Big History classroom.
About the author: Suzanne has taught at the Sri Atmananda Memorial School in Kerala, India, since its founding in 1987. She teaches Big History as a full-year course to a section of about 20 students, who get a history credit for the class. (They take Indian history separately.) Suzanne’s Big History section meets four days a week for 90 minutes per day.