Planetarium program improves young students’ understanding of celestial motion

By Suzanne Perin - June 2011


Plummer, J. D. (2009). Early elementary students’ development of astronomy concepts in the planetarium. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(2), 192–209.

This study found that the participation of students in a single planetarium program that incorporated kinaesthetic learning techniques was valuable enough to improve their understanding of celestial motion. Although this study is focused on astronomy and planetariums, it is also of relevance to educators who interface with learners at single events or are working with schools to integrate or complement their informal education offerings with the formal curriculum.

In this study, early elementary aged students were made to view a single, 45-minute planetarium program covering six key ideas of celestial motion using kinesthetic learning techniques (KLT). The ideas were: path of the sun in summer and winter and their comparison, path of the moon, motion of the stars, and the cause of daylight. Three additional subjects were also included in the program, but were not taught using KLT. For each idea covered in the program, kinesthetic actions, including pointing hands and arms to trace movement of the projection and making predictions about the location of the sun, moon, and the setting and rising of the stars, were described. In a small planetarium-like room, selected students from seven classes were interviewed so that they could express their ideas about the apparent motion using a flashlight. The interviews took place before and approximately a week after their visit to the planetarium.

The planetarium format and the KLT methods provided students with certain advantages over their own observations (such as watching a night sky move over a few minutes in the planetarium by speeding up the motion). The study found that there was improvement in the students’ understanding of celestial motion in both the topics covered by the KLT program and the additional topics not covered by it. KLT improved the ability of the students to come out with accurate descriptions of celestial motion, which the author attributes to the ways in which instruction promoted conceptual growth and engaged multiple modalities for learning. Regardless of whether or not they had some accurate prior understanding of the key topics, students’ learning improved. Even partial improvements meant that they had learned some new idea and were able to describe and visualize it.

An additional finding of the study that ISE professionals may find useful is that the students retained a good understanding of the planetarium-taught concepts a week after their visit. This may provide a timeframe for teachers who wish to return to concepts in their classrooms after a fieldtrip.