8th Grade Space Science - MS-ESS1-1, MS-ESS1-2, MS-ESS1-3, MS-PS2-4 MS-PS4-2
Unit Overview

8.4 Earth in Space

How are we connected to the patterns we see in the sky and space?

Unit Summary

Humans have always been driven by noticing, recording, and understanding patterns and by trying to figure out how we fit within much larger systems. In this unit, students begin observing the repeating biannual pattern of the Sun setting perfectly aligned between buildings in New York City along particular streets and then try to explain additional patterns in the sky that they and others have observed. Students draw on their own experiences and the stories of family or community members to brainstorm a list of patterns in the sky. And listen to a series of podcasts highlighting indigenous astronomies from around the world that emphasize how patterns in the sky set the rhythms for their lives, their communities, and all life on Earth, and these are added to their growing list of related phenomena (other patterns in the sky people have observed).

In the first two lesson sets (Lessons 1–5 and 6–7), students develop models for the Earth-Sun and Earth-Sun-Moon systems that explain some of the patterns in the sky that they have identified, including seasons, eclipses, and lunar phases. In the third lesson set (Lessons 8–12), students investigate a series of related phenomena motivated by their questions and ideas for investigations. In the final lesson set (Lessons 13–17), students explore the remaining questions on their Driving Question Board, related to planets and other objects farther out in space (beyond the stars they can see with the unaided eye).

Additional Unit Information

Next Generation Science Standards Addressed in this Unit

Performance Expectations

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This unit builds toward the following NGSS Performance Expectations (PEs):

MS-ESS1-1: Develop and use a model of the Earth-Sun-Moon system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, and seasons. 

MS-ESS1-2: Develop and use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system.

MS-PS2-4: Construct and present arguments using evidence to support the claim that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of interacting objects.

MS-ESS1-3: Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system

MS-PS4-2*: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials. 

*This performance expectation is developed across multiple units. This unit reinforces or works toward these NGSS PEs that students should have previously developed or will develop more fully in future units. In the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence, PS4-2 is first built in Unit 6.1 Light & Matter.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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  • ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars
    • Patterns of the apparent motion of the Sun, the Moon, and stars in the sky can be observed, described, predicted, and explained with models. (MS-ESS1-1)
    • Earth and its solar system are part of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of many galaxies in the universe. (MS-ESS1-2)
  • ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System
    • The solar system consists of the Sun and a collection of objects, including planets, their moons, and asteroids that are held in orbit around the Sun by its gravitational pull on them. (MS-ESS1-2),(MS-ESS1-3)
    • This model of the solar system can explain eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Earth’s spin axis is fixed in direction over the short-term but tilted relative to its orbit around the Sun. The seasons are a result of that tilt and are caused by the differential intensity of sunlight on different areas of Earth across the year. (MS-ESS1-1)
    • The solar system appears to have formed from a disk of dust and gas, drawn together by gravity. (MS-ESS1-2)
  • PS2.B: Types of Interactions 
    • Gravitational forces are always attractive. There is a gravitational force between any two masses, but it is very small except when one or both of the objects have large mass—e.g., Earth and the Sun. (MS-PS2-4)
  • PS4.B: Electromagnetic Radiation 
    • A wave model of light is useful for explaining brightness, color, and the frequency-dependent bending of light at a surface between media. (MS-PS4-2)
    • However, because light can travel through space, it cannot be a matter wave, like sound or water waves. (MS-PS4-2)

Science & Engineering Practices

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  • Developing and Using Models: Students develop, use, and revise models beginning in Lesson 1 and throughout the unit to explain patterns in the sky ranging from why Manhattahenge occurs twice a year in the same spot, why the seasons in Australia are opposite of seasons in the Northern Hemisphere, why the Moon appears redder during a lunar eclipse but does not go completely dark, why planets go around the Sun and moons go around planets, our place in the solar system and galaxy, and more. 
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Students use multiple graphical displays (e.g., maps, scatter plots) of large data sets to identify and explain patterns in sky (such as solar elevation, length of day, location and paths of motion for objects in the sky, and the organization of the solar system. 
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information: Throughout the unit students are gathering, reading, synthesizing and information from multiple sources (e.g., text, data, maps, graphs, images). This is an 8th grade unit toward the end of the year, so students have already had much experience in this practice so while students are given several close reading or listening protocols, some of the scaffolding has been removed from previous units so they can execute the practice on their own.

Crosscutting Concepts

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  • Patterns: From the start of Lesson 1, students are noticing patterns in the sky and return several times throughout the unit with their community guide to make note of more patterns they and others feel connected to and observe in the sky. This is built out in Lessons 2 and 3 as they begin to notice repeating patterns not just over days but thousands of years, throughout the unit, and that those patterns can be expanded to systems at great scale such as the organization of the solar system and galaxies due to gravitational forces. 
  • Scale, Proportion, and Quantity; Students will gradually build out to the vast scale of the universe starting in Lesson 1 by modeling Manhattanhenge, which just involves a two-object system at one scale, to chose another pattern they feel connected to in order to model from different perspectives, and working toward a model with multiple scales between them in Lesson 17, including galaxies, stars, and additional objects/subsystems in the solar system. 
  • System and System Models: Integrated in the Lesson 1 initial models to explain a pattern in the sky chosen by each student is students beginning to make sense of the parts and interactions in the system to explain the causality of their model. Models throughout the unit link components about the motion, positions, and appearance of objects within their subsystems and placement within larger systems. By Lesson 17, students can model each individual subsystem zooming in on the parts and interactions from a galactic scale all the way down to a two-object system, such as the Earth-Moon or Earth-Sun systems. 
  • The unit also includes opportunities to practice using Cause and Effect, Stability and Change, and Structure and Function.

Connections to Nature of Science

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Which elements of the Nature of Science are developed in the unit?

  • Science findings are frequently revised and/or reinterpreted based on new evidence. (NOS-SEP)
  • Science knowledge is cumulative and many people, from many generations and nations, have contributed to science knowledge. (NOS-CCC)
  • Science is a way of knowing used by many people, not just scientists. (NOS-CCC)
  • Scientific knowledge is constrained by human capacity, technology, and materials. (NOS-CCC).

How are they developed?

  • Students revise their ideas about the tilt vs. an upright earth axis, Earth distance to the sun, and about the cause for lunar eclipses.
  • Students obtain sky and space knowledge from patterns observed by cultural astronomers from different locations on Earth and backgrounds.
  • Students hear, collect, and connect to sky stories and patterns from communities different from their own, scientists from different backgrounds, and their own experiences.
  • Students gather information and make connections to observations of Solar System objects over time using different technologies, such as just their eyes, telescopes over time, and space probes.

Unit Placement Information

What is the anchoring phenomenon, and why was it chosen?

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The anchoring phenomenon for each OpenSciEd unit is chosen from a group of phenomena aligned with the target performance expectations based on student interest survey data and consultation with external advisory panels that include teachers, subject matter experts, and state science administrators. This unit is launched by a phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge. Students analyze how the Sun aligns with the Manhattan skyline one day each year and develop an initial model to explain this engaging and puzzling phenomenon. Although Manhattanhenge is specific to New York City, alignment of the Sun with various human-made structures is a universal experience, and there is guidance in the teacher guide on how to localize for your context. Solar alignment happens every year and is something students can see themselves, whether in a highly urban setting or a local context. Several locations across the country have locally famous solar alignments, such as Chicagohenge (on the Chicago skyline) and Scrippshenge (through a pier in California), but students can also observe solar alignments between pieces of playground equipment or over a school building. People have tracked this phenomena across cultures, and throughout human history, planning construction to align with the Sun on solstices, for example, Carhenge in Nebraska (built in 1987) or the layout of the Cahokia Mounds in Southern Illinois (built sometime around 1100). Students use these patterns to begin making connections between the position of the sunset on Earth, connect it to our daily lives, and brainstorm other interesting patterns that link our lives to the sky. Students also bring in stories from family or community members about patterns in the sky they have seen or heard about and discuss how these might be connected to the rhythms of human life. In a classroom jigsaw, students explore a series of podcasts to learn about ways that humans across cultures and throughout time have relied on and made connections to the sky, and students listen for additional patterns that the astronomers in the podcasts identify. By broadening the set of prior experiences, we can expand the anchor of the unit to build upon the knowledge of students, their families, and the Indigenous communities shared in the podcasts. Students are now personally connected not just to a single phenomena but also to the shared experiences of their peers and all of humanity, and they are able to access more patterns than they may be able to observe directly in the sky where they live. While the anchoring phenomenon for this unit is Manhattanhenge, students expand quickly from this event, and their questions cover a range of celestial patterns that are meaningful to humans and that can all be explained by the deceptively simple mechanics of our solar system.

How is the unit structured?

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The unit is organized into four lesson sets. Lessons 1–5 focus on developing science ideas about the Earth-Sun system. In Lessons 6–7, students add the Moon into the system and are left wondering why lunar eclipses do not go completely dark. This leads them to investigate more phenomena related to color and light in lessons 8–12, in order to explain the redder color of the Moon during lunar eclipses. In Lesson 13, students note that their questions can no longer be answered just by observations from Earth and their unaided eyes, which motivates them to use tools to see better and farther into space, expanding the scale of their models. This drives them to wonder about why the solar system is organized the way it is and how it got to be that way, which motivates them to investigate how gravitational interactions dictate the organization and motion of objects within each system and how this holds true for multiple scales and subsystems in the final lesson set, Lessons 13–17.


Where does this unit fall within the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence?

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This unit is the fourth OpenSciEd 8th grade unit and designed to be taught just after Magnets Unit in the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence. As such, it can leverage ideas about distance forces and field-based thinking, which is especially helpful where in the space above the Earth and Moon and between them gravitational forces would be found, which lays the groundwork for even larger scale system organization and motion due to gravity.

Additionally, another prior unit, OpenSciEd Unit 6.3: Why does a lot of hail, rain, or snow fall at some times and not others? (Storms Unit), can provide science ideas for students as they they investigate the effect of changes in the atmosphere (or even any atmosphere versus no atmosphere) on the apparent color of the Moon during a lunar eclipse or other phenomena in the sky, such as rainbows and sun dogs.

How will I need to modify the unit if taught out of sequence?

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This is the fourth unit in 8th grade in the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence. Given this placement, several modifications would need to be made if teaching this unit earlier or later in the middle school curriculum. These include the following adjustments:

  • If taught before OpenSciEd OpenSciEd Unit 8.1: Why do things sometimes get damaged when they hit each other? (Collisions Unit) or OpenSciEd Unit 8.3: How can a magnet move another object without touching it? (Magnets Unit), supplemental teaching of the definitions of forces would be required to help student model of what causes gravitational forces, why they vary, and why they can produce relatively y and stable orbits in some conditionsThese ideas are leveraged in Lesson 13 and beyond in this unit.
  • From OpenSciEd Unit 8.1: Why do things sometimes get damaged when they hit each other? (Collisions Unit) or OpenSciEd Unit 8.3: How can a magnet move another object without touching it? (Magnets Unit): Force pairs are the result of the interaction of two objects or systems. There are no single forces. Each force in a force pair is equal in strength, opposite in direction, and acting on a different part of the system or object in the system.
  • From OpenSciEd Unit 8.3: How can a magnet move another object without touching it? (Magnets Unit): Some forces act a distance rather than through contact between matter. Magnetic fields can be used to map and visualize the direction and strength of magnetic forces at various distances from one or more objects in a system. Distance affects the strength of these forces.
  • If taught before OpenSciEd Unit 8.1 (or at the start of the school year), supplemental teaching of classroom norms, setting up the Driving Question Board, and asking open-ended and testable questions would need to be added. (These supports are built into 8.1.)

What mathematics is required to fully access the unit’s learning experiences?

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This unit is not math intensive. Prerequisite math concepts from students’ math classes include the following:

  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.7.RP.A.1 Compute unit rates associated with ratios of fractions, including ratios of lengths, areas, and other quantities measured in like or different units.
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.7.RP.A.1 Compute unit rates associated with ratios of fractions, including ratios of lengths, areas, and other quantities measured in like or different units.

How do I shorten or condense the unit if needed? How can I extend the unit if needed?

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The following are example options to shorten or condense parts of the unit without eliminating important sensemaking for students:

  • If your context dictates shorter amounts of time for a unit or you need to break the unit up into smaller parts: Chunk the unit into Lessons 1–5 (Lesson Set 1), 6–7 (Lesson Set 2), 8–12 (Lesson Set 3), and 13–17 (Lesson Set 4). Lesson Sets 1 and 2 should be taught in sequence and before Lesson Set 4, but Lesson Set 3 could be skipped if you do not need to address MS PS4-2, or it could be moved to be taught after Lesson Set 4. If you do the latter, you would need to adapt the navigation into Lesson 8.
  • Lesson Set 3 (Lessons 8–12): If students do not have questions about color and light or your state or district does not require that Physical Science Performance Expectations be a part of this unit then you can skip Lesson Set 3 (Lessons 8–12).  
  • Lesson 4: If students don’t have as many questions about deep space interactions, you may want to trim some of the lessons from Lesson Set 4 (Lesson 13–17).

To extend or enhance the unit, consider the following:

  • Many lessons: Within many lessons are extension readings, videos, simulations, or activities offered as alternates or home learning. If you find that students are highly engaged or looking for a challenge, offer these readings as either in-class or home learning extensions.
  • All lessons: Remove scaffolds provided with Science and Engineering Practices as a way to give students more independent work with the elements of these practices.

Unit Acknowledgements

Unit Development Team

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  • Jamie Deutch Noll, Unit Lead, Northwestern University
  • Zoë Buck Bracey, Field Test Unit Lead & Advisor, BSCS Science Learning
  • Thomas Clayton, Writer, Advisory Team, and Pilot Teacher, Columbia Middle School, Berkeley Heights, NJ
  • Molly Ewing, Writer, The Charles A. Dana Center, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Gail Housman, Writer & Reviewer, Northwestern University
  • Shelley LeDoux, Writer, The Charles A. Dana Center, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Chris Newlan, Writer, David Wooster Middle School, Stratford, CT
  • Michael Novak, Writer, Reviewer, & Conceptual Design, Northwestern University
  • William Reed, Writer, Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Chicago Public Schools
  • Nicole Vick, Writer, BSCS Science Learning
  • Rachel Connolly, PhD., Content Advisor/Media Designer, MIT Media Lab
  • Sergio Salgado, Podcast development, Furnace FPS
  • Katie Van Horne, Assessment Specialist, Concolor Research
  • Christina Schwarz, Unit Advisory Chair, Michigan State University
  • Christina Murzymski, Project Coordinator, Northwestern University

Production Team

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BSCS Science Learning

  • Rosemi Mederos, Copyeditor, Independent Contractor
  • Stacey Luce, Copyeditor and Editorial Production Lead
  • Renée DeVaul, Project Coordinator and Copyeditor
  • Valerie Maltese, Marketing Specialist & Project Coordinator
  • Chris Moraine, Multimedia Graphic Designer
  • Kate Chambers, Multimedia Graphic Designer

Unit External Evaluation


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EdReports awarded OpenSciEd an all-green rating for our Middle School Science Curriculum in February 2023.  The materials received a green rating on all three qualifying gateways: Designed for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Coherence and Scope, and Usability. To learn more and read the report, visit the EdReports site.

NextGenScience’s Science Peer Review Panel

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An integral component of OpenSciEd’s development process is external validation of alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards by NextGenScience’s Science Peer Review Panel using the EQuIP Rubric for Science. We are proud that this unit has been identified as a quality example of a science unit. You can find additional information about the EQuIP rubric and the peer review process at the nextgenscience.org website.

ed report
Unit standards

This unit builds toward the following NGSS Performance Expectations (PEs) as described in the OpenSciEd Scope & Sequence:

  • MS-ESS-1-1
  • MS-ESS-1-2
  • MS-PS2-4
  • MS-ESS1-3
  • MS-PS4-2*
Reference to kit materials

The OpenSciEd units are designed for hands-on learning and therefore materials are necessary to teach the unit. These materials can be purchased as science kits or assembled using the kit material list.

NGSS Design Badge

Awarded: Sep 21, 2022

Awarded To: OpenSciEd Unit 8.4 How Are We Connected to the Patterns We See in the Sky and Space?