Observing the components of the Universe were always dependent upon human ability to look beyond the Earth. Prior to the invention of the telescope, people had few tools to explore space. Egyptians carefully watched the Sun for years and recorded the sunrises and sunsets. They were the first to record that the position of stars in the heaven repeats after 365 sunrises and sunsets. People in Egypt, India, China, and Mesopotamia also observed the stars and divided them into recognizable groups now called constellations. They realized that there are 7 planetary bodies that moved, the Sun, the Moon, and 5 planets. They believed the planets to be gods whose movements would reveal themselves sometimes in the future. Other early cultures, from all the continents, based many beliefs on astronomical observations.

   Later civilizations, like the Greeks held the heavens with great respect, based, mainly on philosophical thinking rather than observational data. Ptolemy (90-168) is probably the best known Greek astronomer who proposed a detailed geometrical interpretation of celestial motions known as the Ptolemaic system. One of his explanations included that each planet moved in a small circle (epicycle) in the period of its revolution around the Sun and that the entire system moved around the Earth.

  During this early Greek phase of astronomy, the philosophers were not as dogmatic as later church "scientists." In the time when Christianity was experiencing an enormous growth, astronomy was considered an "evil." It wasn't until the rebirth of scientific thought around the turn of the 16th century did astronomy become a growing science. The history of astronomy on other continents is difficult to document because the written record is lacking.

   Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), from what is now Poland, disposed of the Earth as the Universe's center, by placing the Sun in the central position, with the planets (including Earth) revolving around the Sun. Although Copernicus tried to maintain some of the Ptolemaic epicycles, his work marks a new era of the "Heliocentric" theory. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), financed by the King of Denmark, used a wall quadrant and sextant that measured star and planet locations accurately. He noticed that the stars were seemingly farther than previously imagined. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) using Tycho's records, developed 3 laws of planetary motion. Kepler's laws outline that the orbit of planets are elliptical with the Sun as the focus point; that planets revolve around the Sun over equal areas; and there is a mathematical relationship of how far the planets are from the Sun.

   The right type of lenses used for a telescope, were first invented in Holland in the early part of the 1700's. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), an Italian, used lenses in his "optic" tube, which allowed people to see objects that were invisible to the unaided eye. Galileo was able to see stars of the Milky Way, mountains on the Moon, phases of Venus and many other important observation that would lead him to the laws of inertia (a body under no constraint moves in a straight line). Galileo's inquiry on motion would be used by Sir Isaac Newton to uncover more mysteries of the Universe.

   Newton (1642-1727) used the telescope, as well as other instrumentation, to observe and calculate the orbits of planets and satellites that would be the basis for his laws of motion and gravity. Newton's law of motion would take astronomy to a new scientific level. Newton's first law of motion may be stated simply that a body remains at rest or continues to move with constant velocity in a straight line unless it is acted on by an unbalanced outside force. The second law of motion states that the change of speed or direction of a body (acceleration) is directly proportional to the external force producing the change. The third law of motion is that every action has an opposite and equal reaction.

   In the 1700's Thomas Wright and William Herschel (England) suggested that the Milky Way might in fact be a flat disc of stars in which the Sun was embedded. This information was putting the significance of Earth even farther from the original Ptolemaic theory. Then in the 1920's Harlow Shapley and Jan Oort put the final indignation to the Earth centered theory, by saying that we lived in a fairly typical galaxy amongst hundreds of millions of other. Albert Einstein in the early 1900's developed the theory of relativity, that put the Earth in a position in space and time that would have been unthinkable to early civilizations.

   Exploration of the Universe would increase when astronomers learned to use infrared, microwaves, and other components of the electromagnetic wave spectrum. Up until the 1920's astronomers's observation was hindered by their tools. During World War II, technology advanced on the use of radio transmission. Astronomers realized that they could use this technology to see the Universe, not with "eyes," but through the transmission and receival of microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma rays. The Universe would slowly unfold to researchers. Presently new advances in the technical ability to search the Universe, has allowed some of Einstein's mathematical theories to be proven or disproven. However, the field is still in its infancy.

   Teaching students about the Universe needs observation skills. The skies fascinate them, but elementary age students need to be aware of how to describe and observe what they see, and to realize that it has taken humankind a long time to even begin understanding the Universe.

   Teaching your students about the Universe can be difficult if you teach a planet here and a galaxy there. There is definitely a progression of thought to maintain as you are teaching elementary students year after year. In the Integrating Science, Math and Technology Program (I. SCIENCE MaTe) the Universe Cycle is taught in 4 weeks using the following themes: Universe, Solar system, Earth, and Geography.

   Units in the Universe theme discusses the stars, constellations, galaxies, and other objects in the night sky. Students are taught that the Universe is the larger entity. Units on the Solar System concentrates on comparing and contrasting planetary orbits, features of individual planets, and planetary resources. The Earth is observed as a rotating planet with one satellite (the Moon) that revolves around the Sun. Students learn about why we have seasons, and compare the Earth with other planets. Although Geography is a skill and not a "scientific field," its importance is evident throughout the entire program. Concepts on latitude, longitude, and how maps are made are taught. The content material throughout the Universe Cycle builds up from kindergarten through sixth grade in each of the themes of Universe, Solar System, Earth, and Geography.

   The first theme of the Universe emphasizes the different components of outer space in the lower grades. Students learn that there are many stars in the night sky as well as what the stars represent. In the second through fourth grades students see that the Universe is a vast system of galaxies all with different shapes that have their own descriptions. Students start learning the three dimensionality of the night sky. In the fifth to sixth grade students visualize motion in space and vast amounts of distance of time that encompasses the Universe.

   The theme of Solar System describes the physical appearance and location of planets in the lower grades. It allows students to compare and contrast the different planets with one another to determine what are the key characteristics of the planets. In the upper grades the students describe orbits of the planets and develop detailed information on the planets. The students in the theme of the Earth looks at the Earth as a planet. In the lower grades students describe the surface of the Earth. This information is used to have them discover how the earth is different than the rest of the planets. Throughout the entire units have the students conclude that the Earth is unique because it sustains life. In the upper grades students discuss how the Earth/Moon system is interrelated and to discover the consequences of rotation and revolution.

   The theme of Geography is more skill oriented. In the lower grades we define a map by having students work with their local school and community. In the upper grades they learn how one can record land features and interpret these maps. Data is used for the students to map and then interpret their conclusions.

   The Universe Cycle presented in this manner can give students an accurate look at the Earth and how we are part of the Universe. It is very important for students to realize the importance and uniqueness of the Earth compared to the entire system, but to give students information so they can conclude that the Earth is only a small portion of the Universe.


The Universe is a vast space of unknown dimensions. Students should be aware of the place of the Milky Way galaxy in the Universe. This will given them a sense of where the Solar System belongs. Discovering the different components of the Universe and their motion gives students the power to realize the immense frontiers that belong to the people of the future. It is almost impossible to understand completely why and how the Universe formed, especially since most of the theories are based on mathematical models. These units will allow students to wonder and ask questions.


Students need to identify, compare, and contrast the different components of the Universe. Discussions should center on the vastness of space, stars, and galaxies. The difference between the Universe and our Solar System should be made clear to students. Students will begin to compare constellations with stars.


Once students become familiar with the components of the Universe they need to use this knowledge to synthesize how the components fit together. Students will continue to compare celestial objects, but now evaluate and interpret the movements and contents of the Universe. They will learn about ways to study the Universe and address some of its unsolved mysteries. Students will compare and contrast astronomy and astrology.


The Solar System is only a small portion of the Universe. It includes the large and small bodies that revolve around the Sun. Planets, comets, meteoroids, asteroids, and moons are part of the Solar System. Students in elementary school will compare and contrast the different bodies of the Solar System. They will gain new insight on how the planets revolve around the sun, and how a planet rotates on its axis.


The night sky has many objects that are part of the Solar System. Students should be able to distinguish these components especially planets, moons, asteroids, and meteoroids. They will begin investigating the different planets by comparing and contrasting them. Once students learn the parts of the Solar System, then they can begin to learn how the planets move within the Solar System.


Students will learn more about planetary orbits, by contrasting, evaluating, and analyzing data from the planets. They will see the difference between the Earth and other planets. Students will explore characteristics of the planets by comparing terrestrial with gaseous planets. Students will also look at data about each of the planets.


Children rarely appreciate the wonders of the earth until an adult guides their observations. The Earth is a child's base for understanding all natural phenomena. The Earth however, is different than many other planets because of its internal activity and surface processes of wind, water, and ice which, create a livable world. The internal movements that cause mountains and volcanoes are not emphasized in these units. The formation of landforms by surface processes is more the focus.


Students will learn that the Earth is a planet, that rotates on an internal axis and revolves around the sun. They look at the surface of the Earth, the mountains and valleys, and learn to see the Earth as a global unit. Students will begin to study how the different agents of erosion mold the surface of the Earth.


Students will further compare the Earth and lunar systems. They will get a hands-on feeling for how erosional processes occur on the surface of the Earth. They will also compare and contrast the surface features of the Earth with the other planets by analyzing and interpreting patterns of maps. They will learn how the tilt of the Earth’s axis as it revolves around the Sun causes the seasons.


Skills learned in geography are vital in helping students interpret data derived from the Earth. Learning to read maps and to know where you are is also practical. Map reading skills make a very large world look small and understandable. These units emphasize projections, different types of maps, and interpreting topographic maps. The units emphasize using maps to obtain data to see if there are patterns in their location.


Students need to learn the importance of map reading skills. They need to recognize the difference between land and water on a map, which leads into analyzing shapes of continents and their positions. Students learn that there are many different types of maps and develop skills in elementary map making.


Maps are a basic tool that makes learning about an area much easier. Students need to use the skills that they learned in lower primary and then to start putting data on the maps so they can begin analyzing how to use the different types of maps. Learning how to make a 2 dimensional map from a 3 dimensional world is also emphasized. Students learn how to compare and contrast different types of maps.

[Back to Universe Cycle Grid]