In a series of posts this week, I will be sharing 5 Misconceptions in Science and providing lessons and activities to help dispel these conceptual misunderstandings. Today’s post focuses on common misconceptions in astronomy.
Misconceptions creep into the science of astronomy perhaps more than any other science. Surveys have found that even college graduates carry persistent misconceptions or even wildly incorrect ideas about the phases of the moon or the cause of the seasons.
Considering the following statements, which are true? Which are false?
1) The sky is blue because it reflects the blue color of the oceans.
2) The seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the sun.
3) The Moon’s phases are due to the shadow of the Earth falling on the Moon.
4) The bright glow of a meteor is not caused by friction as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere.
5) There are no stars seen in Apollo Moon-landing pictures thus proving that these landings were staged.
6) The Hubble Space Telescope is bigger than all Earth-based telescopes.
7) Stars in the night sky do have color.
8) The Moon is bigger near the horizon than when it’s overhead.
9) In the southern hemisphere, winters are much warmer than those in the northern hemisphere.
10) X-rays are emitted from the eclipsed sun but these X-rays do not damage your eyes if you look at the eclipsed sun.
How to Dispel Misconceptions
To help foster the replacement of misconceptions with new concepts, students should be encouraged to ask questions. Additionally, they should be given ample opportunity to engage in hands-on experiments or demonstrations designed to test hypotheses.
Carefully selected demonstrations are one way of helping students overcome misconceptions, and there are a variety of resources available. Let’s take the second statement above and explore how we can dispel this common misunderstanding.
The seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the sun.
Studies have shown that as many as 95% of people— including most college graduates—incorrectly believe that the seasons result from the Earth moving closer to or farther from the Sun. In reality, the answer lies in the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis away or toward the Sun as the Earth travels through its year-long orbit. Distance plays no role since the Earth actually is closest to the Sun during the first week of January.
This video embedded below uses a globe and a strip of thermochromic paper to show how the axial tilt of the Earth as it orbits the sun produces the changing season. This is an excellent hands-on activity in which to engage your students to dispel this commonly held misconception.
To further investigate this common misconception in astronomy, check out National Geographic’s lesson The Reason for the Seasons.
Using demonstrations is a great tool to help dispel misconceptions. Be careful, however, to choose models and demonstrations that do do not mislead or strengthen other misconceptions. A popular model of the solar system that shows the relative distances of the planets from the sun, shows the planets all rotating around the sun on the same plane rather than on independent three-dimensional paths.
Misconceptions in Science & How to Dispel Them (series introduction)
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