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"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants": Major Figures of the Scientific Revolution


Isaac Newton, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Emil Wolff, 1865. Photo: Dimitris Kamaras, Flickr (cc by 2.0)
Isaac Newton, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Emil Wolff, 1865. Photo: Dimitris Kamaras, Flickr (cc by 2.0)


Lesson Plan

Grade Level:  5


This lesson allows students to explore the idea that all scientific breakthroughs are built on the theories of previous scientific discoveries. Science is an ever changing collective body of human knowledge and although many commonly accepted scientific theories may be disproven in the future, those ideas are needed to further our understanding of the world we live in. This lesson will help students to study  how scientists changed the model of our univerise from being earth-centered to the idea of a sun-centered solar system by looking at the intermediate steps between the old and new models.


Earth and Space Science
Topic: Cycles and Patterns in the Solar System 
This topic focuses on the characteristics, cycles and patterns in the solar system and within the universe. 
  • The solar system includes the sun and all celestial bodies that orbit the sun. 
  • Each planet in the solar system has unique characteristics. 
  • The sun is one of many stars that exist in the universe. 
  • Most of the cycles and patterns of motion between the Earth and sun are predictable. 
Topic: Historical Thinking 
Historical thinking begins with a clear sense of time- past, present and future- and becomes more precise as students progress. Historical thinking includes skills such as locating, researching, analyzing and interpreting primary and secondary sources so that students can begin to understand the relationships among events and draw conclusions.  
Topic: Heritage
Ideas and events from the past have shaped the world as it is today. The actions of individuals and groups have made the difference in the lives of others.



In this lesson students will explore the lives and planetary theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Students will list the major contributions of each scientist and create a time line to understand the relationships among events in order to draw conclusions about the progression in our understanding of the universe and the cycles and patterns of our solar system. Students will also analyze a quote made by Newton explaining his successes based on the work of Scientist who came before him. 


Day One
1. Pass out copies of Newton’s quote: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
2. Have students read quote and instruct them to think about what he meant using the questions on the handout. 
3. Provide students time to discuss their thoughts with others in small groups
4. Record students’ responses to questions on chart paper.
5. Explain that using the JIGSAW method the class is going to research several scientists who made contributions to our current understanding of how the solar system works. 
6. Divide students into heterogeneous investigation groups, and assign each small group one of the following scientists:  Ptolemy, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Newton.
7. Explain that  their goal is to read a short summary of the scientist’s life and theories and then be prepared to share with the whole class the major contributions of their scientist and a brief explanation of his theory of the universe/solar system.
8. Check for understanding while students are working. Clarify misunderstandings and monitor progress. Assist groups, as needed, in preparing their information to share on day two.
Day Two
1. Share in chronological order the findings of each expert group. Students should take notes recording the major contributions and theories of the universe of each scientist.  
2. Provide any historical background needed for students to fill in any gaps in understanding. 
3. One expert from each scientist will become part of the new JIGSAW groups. Each JIGSAW group will now have all the information needed to construct a timeline of knowledge surrounding the universe. 
4. Instruct students to organize the life spans of all the scientists in chronological order and place them on a timeline.  Each time line should include a summary statement about each scientist.
5. Continue timelines on day three if needed.
Day Three
1. Pass out image of Riccioloi’s Almagestum Nova  (1651) (link above)  and Image Analysis Worksheet.
2. Have students work in groups to complete the image analysis worksheet and then conduct a teacher guided discussion.
Note: The image shows Ptolemy lying on the floor, and seemingly defeated, but defiantly saing, “I will arise again.” Ptolemy's model is in the lower right. In the center is the Tychonic model and the winner on the left is the Copernican model. But note that the Copernican model would eventually lose out to Kepler’s model with elliptical orbits.
3. Students will then complete a venn diagram comparing and contrasting the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican systems given two images illustrating the systems and the notes taken on Day 2. A further challenge for advanced groups would be to also include the Keppler system in the comparison.
Day Four
1. Pass out Newton’s quote again and ask students to reflect on the same questions that were posed on day one. Look at responses from before the lesson to see how their understanding of Newton’s quote has changed. 
2. Conduct a classroom discussion emphasizing the concept that all scientific discoveries are built from the scientific discoveries of others and that scientific knowledge is constantly changing because of new discoveries and technologies.
3. Assign students the task of drawing or building an accurate model of the sun and planets.


* Performance Assessments: 
Timeline:  is the information accurate? Does the timeline represent the chronological progression of accumulated knowledge about the universe? Does the timeline include an accurate summary statement about each scientist? Can the students explain the relationship between each scientist on the timeline?

Venn Diagram:  Is the information accurate? Does the student include all the necessary details of comparison? Does the student include what is unique about each model?
* Formative Assessment:
Newton’s Quote:  Does the student’s response show a deepening understanding of how scientific discovery is built upon the work of other scientists?  Does the student understand what Newton meant by seeing further and who he referred to as giants? Does the student understand Newton’s character more deeply than initially?
* Summative Assessment:
Solar System Model: Students will draw or design an accurate model of the sun and the planets based on the currently accepted scientific model of the Solar System.
Created by Anmarie Croswell, Wiggin Street Elementary School, Mt. Vernon City Schools, Mt. Vernon, Ohio.