MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Investigating Ordering Planets: Math Connections and Number Sense in Science

Investigating Ordering Planets: Math Connections and Number Sense in Science

Anne E. Flynn
St. Charles Borromeo School
St. Anthony Village
Based on an original activity from "Science" by Harcourt School Publishers 2006, 'What Is the Solar System?'p.353
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In this Solar System Investigate, students will determine ways to order the planets. Teacher directed inquiry will suggest that they first order the planets according to their distance from the sun. Students will then work on their own methods of determining "order."

Learning Goals

Learning goals that should be achieved are: data analysis, model development, and questioning. Students will hopefully begin to develop an understanding of the importance of data order and number sense and how these concepts work outside of their math curriculum and spill into science. Students should also gain an appreciation for planetary distances and scale.

Context for Use

For this set of activities you will need approximately 50 minutes.
Class size should range from 15-30 students and can be completed in the classroom.
You will need (per student):
Planet Data Chart
Meter stick
Adding machine tape (1 roll per 2-4 students)

Prior Knowledge for this activity should include:
Ordering Numbers/Number Sense
Basic Measuring Skills
Understanding "Scale"
Understanding the difference between a planet and a star
Understanding of gravity and orbit would also be helpful

Subject: Physics:Astronomy:Solar System, Mathematics, Geoscience
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Problem Solving, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:K12

Description and Teaching Materials

Planet Data Chart (Microsoft Word 76kB Jul26 07)
These activities are being taken directly from Harcourt School Publishers, "Science" Third Grade Level Teacher Edition, p.353-355/Lesson 3. ISBN: 0-15-343567 (

This lesson is designed to develop a deeper understanding of planetary distances based on ordering of numbers.
Students are given a copy of a Planet Data Chart which contains an alphabetical listing of the planets. Once the list is distributed the teacher can then guide inquiry by asking: "Can you tell me how these planets are 'ordered' on the page?"
Allow students time to examine the data on the chart(approx. 3-5 minutes). Students should each be given a piece of graph or lined paper, pencil, and ruler (to use as a guide for drawing straight lines on their paper).
Using just the data in the first column on the Planet Data Chart, ask students to list the planets in order by their distance from the sun, from closest to farthest.

Students will then draw conclusions and answer the following questions:
1. Which planet is closest to the sun?
2. Which planet is farthest from the sun?
4. How many planets are between Earth and the sun?
5. Which planets are Earth's nearest neighbors? How can you tell?

Students should now move into groups and work on the following Inquiry Skill: Scientists sometimes use numbers to put things in order. List other ways you could order the planets using the Planet Data Chart.
Collaborate and list on the board or overhead the student generated ideas.
To help students better understand the immense scale of these numbers, and of the solar system, keep the students in their small (2-4) discussion groups and provide each group with adding machine tape and a meter stick. List the following data on the board: Earth: 1 Saturn: 10 Uranus: 20 Neptune: 30
Explain that the data show the approximate distance from the sun to each planet in AUs. You will need to explain that an AU is the distance from the sun to Earth. The abbreviation "AU" stands for Astronomical Unit.
Have students label one end of a 50cm length of adding machine tape "sun." Using the scale 1 cm = 1 AU, have students draw a scale model of the distances of the planets.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Scale can be a difficult concept for students. Try a variety of methods–like multiple Styrofoam ball sizes to demonstrate scale (these can be quite costly and are easily damaged). The adding machine tape works well especially in confined classroom space.


Teacher Observation of Individual and Group Work
Students will provide a written list of planets in their order from closest to farthest from the sun.
Students can demonstrate/share their understanding of number sense/order by providing oral clues to the teacher to put on the board/overhead.
Student Groups will turn in a completed adding machine tape showing the scale of distance between planets beginning from the sun.


3.III.C.2 (The Universe)
3.I.A.1 (Scientific World View)
3.I.B.1 (Scientific Inquiry)

References and Resources