Teach the Earth > Visualization > Teaching Activities > Formation of the solar system

Formation of the solar system and orbital parameters

Lensyl Urbano
University of Memphis
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This assignment or demonstration works really well for me in describing the formation of the solar system, the shapes and changes in planetary orbits, and introduces Milankovitch cycles.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



I've used this often in introductory level earth science classes that discuss climate change, such as "Environmental Geology" and "Weather and Climate"

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This is a basic introduction and has no prerequisites.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is an introductory exercise that prepares students for the reasons for orbital forcing of climate.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students learn about
* the formation of the solar system from nebula collapse,
* the scientific method,
* understanding of simple equations (Gravity equation),
* the creation and use of simple computer models in science.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The assignment attempts to,
* hone observation skills,
* induce comparison between different types of observations to test hypotheses.

Other skills goals for this activity

Understanding simple physical equations (gravity equation).

Description of the activity/assignment

This exercise is designed as a lab, but can also be used as a classroom demonstration. It requires the use of the VPython programs which require Python and VPython to be installed on your computers (this software is free and has been made available on the default image for all computers on our campus). The models show

  1. the gravitational collapse of a set of particles to create a central "Sun" with other orbiting particles,
  2. a simple model to demonstrate elliptical orbits,
  3. a simple model of the solar system showing the planetary orbits (speeded up).

The task is to assess one hypothesis about the formation of the solar system (from a dust and gas nebula) by comparing the computer simulation (model 1) to the shape and form of the actual solar system (model 3). Students can interact with the 3d models by, for example, selecting planetary objects to track, and changing perspectives in 3d space. In doing this students learn about the shapes of the planetary orbits (ellipticity etc) and reasons that they change.

Determining whether students have met the goals

For the lab exercise, students answer short paragraph questions that are based on the learning objectives. In the lecture demonstration, students answer similar questions in class and multiple choice exam questions.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Download teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

The assignment is included in this document.

The computer models used are hosted on the GeoMod website, and are currently located at:
http://lurbano-5.memphis.edu/GeoMod/index.php/Nebula_Model_Instructions (this link no longer works, but is kept for archival purposes)
link http://lurbano-5.memphis.edu/GeoMod/index.php/Ellipticity_Model_Instructions (this link no longer works, but is kept for archival purposes)

link http://lurbano-5.memphis.edu/GeoMod/index.php/Solar_System_Model_Instructions (this link no longer works, but is kept for archival purposes)

Finally, instructions on the installation of VPython can be found on the website http://www.vpython.org/

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