Advanced Moon Project

Author: Ann Bykerk-Kauffman . Department Of Geological and Environmental Sciences, California State University, Chico

Author Profile
This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: September 15, 2009 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


The moon project is a semester-long research project about the moon; each student explores one of four assigned topics. Over 1-2 months, students make daily naked-eye observations of the moon and construct graphs of given data that will help them discover the concepts relevant to their topic. After working through a topic-specific guided-discovery activity, each student uses that activity to teach his/her topic to three students who had explored the other topics.

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Learning Goals

Through this project, students discover many ways in which the motion of the moon affects its appearance from our rotating, revolving, tilted Earth. Thus they develop an especially deep comprehension of one essential scientific concept that few people understand, but that anyone could come to understand, even with a minimal scientific background. Along the way, students...
  • Develop skills in the collection, graphing and analysis of data.
  • Improve their ability to model complex 3-dimensional motions of bodies through space using globes, model celestial spheres, lamps, balls, and other simple manipulatives.
  • Begin crossing the fence over to the teacher side of the teaching and learning experience as they plan and teach a hands-on guided-discovery lesson to their peers.

The specific questions that students seek to answer in this project are...

Topic #1: Moon Rise and Set

  • Where does the moon rise and set?
  • Describe and explain the pattern of the changes in the times of moon rise and set.
  • Describe and explain any correlation between the times of moonrise/moonset and the phases of the moon.

Topic #2: Angle of Tilt of the Moon

  • Explain how and why the angle of the lit portion of the moon rotates relative to the horizon.
  • How many degrees does the lit portion of the moon seem to rotate per hour?
  • Explain why the pattern made by the lunar maria ("rabbit in the moon") rotates relative to the horizon.

Topic #3: Length of the Moon "Day

  • Describe how and why the length of time that the moon is out and the maximum altitude of the moon vary over the course of one moon cycle
  • Describe and explain the pattern of which phase of the moon is out longest and achieves the highest maximum altitude during the various months of the year

Topic #4: Synodic and Sidereal Months

  • The number of hours that the moon is out (the "moon day") increases and decreases in a cycle. What is the periodicity of that cycle? Why?
  • What do the longest moon days of all moon cycles have in common? Shortest moon days? Average-length moon days?
  • How long does it take the moon to go through all of the constellations of the Zodiac? Why?
  • How do we know that it takes the moon exactly 27 1/3 days to complete a 360° orbit of Earth?

Context for Use

This semester-long project has been extensively tested, revised and retested for more than 15 years in the Concepts in Earth and Space Science course for future teachers at California State University, Chico. The in-class portions of the project, including a one-hour introduction, take about 7 hours to complete. We assign the month-long data-collection, and graphing phase of this project to be completed before students receive any formal instruction in astronomy. However, before students can discover and fully develop the answers to their topic questions, they must first have a solid understanding of Earth's seasons and the phases of the moon. Our students achieve this understanding primarily by completing the following guided-discovery activities:

Description and Teaching Materials

  • Student Handouts, describing the requirements of the semester-long moon project
  • Guided-discovery laboratory activities for all four topics. Students first complete the activities specific to their assigned topics in homogeneous groups with other students who are working on the same moon topic. This takes about an hour. During the next hour, the students plan ways to facilitate their classmates in completing those same activities. Finally, students form heterogeneous groups of students working on different topics (jigsaw style) and facilitate each other as they complete the activities for all of the topics; each topic takes about an hour to complete.
    • Student Handouts for the activities (Microsoft Word 3.6MB Sep8 09)
    • Large photograph and many small photographs of the moon (needed for Topic #2) (Microsoft Word 3.6MB Sep8 09)
    • Other materials needed (per lab station of 4-6 students):
      • Pencil and one 3 inch diameter Polystyrene ball per student. An ordinary Styrofoam ball will not do; the ball must be opaque. Suggested source: Molecular Model Enterprises, 116 Swift St., P.O. Box 250, Edgerton, WI 53334, (608)884-9877. Prices are under $1 each.
      • Earth globe
      • Celestial Globe, available from Ward's Natural Science (Item #80 V 8510)
      • Post-it sticky notes
      • Lamp with a single light bulb and no shade
      • Small toy human figure (e.g. Lego guy, army guy)
      • Post-it tape

Teaching Notes and Tips

This project is very challenging for non-science majors. They tend to get frustrated and anxious. Thus they require a great deal of coaching and encouragement. However, once they have completed the project, most students experience a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. They know more about the phases of the moon than most scientists do and they are proud of it!


As the culmination of the project, students are required to write (and illustrate) comprehensive answers to their topic questions. An additional objective assessment that we use to assess whether the students have achieved an in-depth understanding of the phases of the moon is the 20-question Lunar Phases Concept Inventory, developed by the Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry Education Research Group (PACER) at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

References and Resources

Bykerk-Kauffman, A., 2008, The moon project: Student research and lesson design in an introductory geoscience course for pre-service teachers: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 56, no. 5.

For more information on the Jigsaw teaching method, visit the Pedagogy in Action jigsaw teaching method module.

Go back to the Guided Discovery Problems example page.