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Reason for the Seasons

Nancy Moreno, et. al., Baylor College of Medicine

This activity engages learners to investigate the impact of Earth's tilt and the angle of solar insolation as the reason for seasons by doing a series of hands-on activities that include scale models. Students plot the path of the Sun's apparent movement across the sky on two days separated by three months of time.

Activity takes four 45-minute class periods with the second taking place three months after the original activity is completed. Additional materials required.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Performance Expectation, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 3 Cross Cutting Concepts, 6 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 2 Cross Cutting Concepts, 5 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Axial tilt of Earth governs incoming sunlight and seasonality
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1c
Climate is variable
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Climate is variable

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Measurements will have to be done at different times of the day, which may be problematic for courses that occur at a specific time of day.
  • One required material– "clear plastic, dome-shaped lid" (as used to cover whipped toppings on coffee or frozen drinks)– may be located through coffee shops or restaurant supply stores.
  • In step four when perihelion and aphelion are described, send the aphelion student to the other side of the orbit opposite to the perihelion student, not next to him/her. Then mention the dates of both.
  • Review what the activity is about before students go outside to do the hands-on activity.
  • Do activity early in the year and follow up multiple times in the school year.
  • For parts 1 and 2 of the activity, it may be valuable for the student to document what s/he saw in the model illustrating the distance between Earth and the Sun at perihelion and aphelion and illustrating tilt in the relationship to the Sun.
  • If you know that you will only be able to do the activity once, it would be good to have sample data (e.g. from previous years) and perhaps a video clip of prior efforts.
  • Potential follow-up data: How would the data collected compare to data collected at other latitudes?
  • To explore the sun angle for different dates and areas of the world, the USNO's Sun or Moon Altitude/Azimuth Table provides a way for you to obtain a table of the altitude and azimuth of the Sun or Moon during a specific day, at a time interval that you specify: http://www.usno.navy.mil/USNO/astronomical-applications/data-services/alt-az-us

About the Science

  • A multi-pronged approach to teach learners about the reason for seasons.
  • Activity effectively addresses the misconception that varying distance causes the seasons with a suite of hands-on activities.
  • Comments from expert scientist: This resource tackles a tough topic for students to grasp: why we have seasons. It uses a number of different activities to get the students thinking about the distance between the sun and the earth, the earth's axis, summer and winter, the earth's orbit around the sun, etc.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students will need careful guidance, especially during the measurements, to ensure that the results are meaningful.
  • The activity starts out with explaining the misconception - it is best practice to not verbalize the misconception and to emphasize the appropriate concept that Earth's tilt causes the seasons. Allowing the students to read the instructions may cause the wrong concept to stick in their minds.
  • A nice variety of hands-on and kinesthetic activities.
  • Models give learners different aspects of the reason for seasons to consider.
  • Confronts the misconceptions contained in this topic very effectively.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Activity requires good preparation by the teacher and careful guidance for experiment.
  • Handouts are well done and materials are easy to find.
  • Activity is nicely presented with accurate models and graphics.
  • If using the Safari browser, save pdf to your desktop, so it opens without problems.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 1

MS-ESS1-1:Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

MS-ESS1.A1:Patterns of the apparent motion of the sun, the moon, and stars in the sky can be observed, described, predicted, and explained with models.

MS-ESS1.B2:This model of the solar system can explain eclipses of the sun and the moon. Earth’s spin axis is fixed in direction over the short-term but tilted relative to its orbit around the sun. The seasons are a result of that tilt and are caused by the differential intensity of sunlight on different areas of Earth across the year.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 3

Systems and System Models, Patterns, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

MS-C1.3: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships.

MS-C3.3: Proportional relationships (e.g., speed as the ratio of distance traveled to time taken) among different types of quantities provide information about the magnitude of properties and processes.

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

Science and Engineering Practices: 6

Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P1.1:Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.

MS-P2.7:Develop and/or use a model to generate data to test ideas about phenomena in natural or designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs, and those at unobservable scales.

MS-P4.2:Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships.

MS-P4.3: Distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in data.

MS-P5.2:Use mathematical representations to describe and/or support scientific conclusions and design solutions

MS-P6.1:Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena.

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

HS-ESS1.B1:Kepler’s laws describe common features of the motions of orbiting objects, including their elliptical paths around the sun. Orbits may change due to the gravitational effects from, or collisions with, other objects in the solar system.

HS-ESS1.B2:Cyclical changes in the shape of Earth’s orbit around the sun, together with changes in the tilt of the planet’s axis of rotation, both occurring over hundreds of thousands of years, have altered the intensity and distribution of sunlight falling on the earth. These phenomena cause a cycle of ice ages and other gradual climate changes.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 2

Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models

HS-C3.4:Using the concept of orders of magnitude allows one to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale.

HS-C4.4:Models can be used to predict the behavior of a system, but these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in models.

Science and Engineering Practices: 5

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

HS-P1.1:Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.

HS-P2.1:Evaluate merits and limitations of two different models of the same proposed tool, process, mechanism or system in order to select or revise a model that best fits the evidence or design criteria.

HS-P3.5:Make directional hypotheses that specify what happens to a dependent variable when an independent variable is manipulated.

HS-P5.4:Use simple limit cases to test mathematical expressions, computer programs, algorithms, or simulations of a process or system to see if a model “makes sense” by comparing the outcomes with what is known about the real world.

HS-P6.2:Construct and revise an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

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