Gravitational Interactions and 3-D Learning in Middle School

I recently embarked on a journey with K–8 teachers in Vermont to learn how to be intentional about planning for three-dimensional (3-D) learning in the classroom.

To begin our journey, we determined which NGSS performance expectations would be the focus of our instructional sequence. For each performance expectation, we identified the related Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs). We then determined our anchoring event and driving questions and identified possible student misconceptions related to gravity and space. During this process, I was able to work with other middle school science teachers who were going to teach gravity and space in the coming months. This collaboration with teachers outside of my district was powerful, as we all had different talents, and we were all able to excel in those areas while also addressing our weaknesses.

An example of the template used to determine PEs, DCIs, & CCCs  is shown below. (click here to view a full screen image of the chart)


To begin the unit, the task was set up to encourage students to grapple with the following driving question, which was our anchoring event: If humans were capable of traveling to planets in our solar system, would our weight change? Why or why not?.  It was amazing how many misconceptions were revealed as students discussed their ideas in a “gathering ideas scientist meeting,” arguing and supporting claims with information obtained from movies, books, and media and from the random thought process. When the scientist meeting concluded, with all student ideas exhausted and documented, students were asked to determine what information they needed to gather to develop a logical answer that was rooted in scientific knowledge, not fiction. Doing this helped the students take the lead in their own learning and enabled me to be a fearless facilitator.

Throughout the unit, students gathered evidence to support the claim that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses (and distances for those students that were ready to go above and beyond) between interacting objects. As the unit progressed, I was able to formatively assess student understanding through additional scientist meetings and one-on-one check-in sessions. For example, in a pre-write session, when I realized that a few of my students were struggling with making predictions about their weight on various planets in relation to their weight on Earth, I knew it was time for me to conference one-on-one to clear up misconceptions. To be sure of my conferencing efforts, I held a “making meaning scientist meeting,” so students were able to reach consensus about the factors influencing weight and thus gravity on various planets.

At the conclusion of the unit, through a summative assessment, students were able to analyze and interpret data to determine scale proportions of planets in the solar system that they would weigh more or less on compared to on Earth. First, students constructed a bar graph representing each planet in the solar system and its relative mass. Then, students drew scale models of these planets, and explained, using the model they created and the data associated with the planet, why their weight would change.

<insert images of student work> Examples of student work (Each piece shown below fell into the expanding category except the last, as each student was able to explain how the mass of a planet and the distance away from the core of it determined whether they could theoretically stand on the planet, and whether that could affect gravitational pull and thus their weight. The latter fell into the proficient category, as the students struggled with the distance factor.)

Student work

Student work

Student work

Not only were the students in charge of their own learning, but they also had choice and voice in determining which bodies in the solar system they wanted to research. This allowed them to dig deeper into their own learning, which led to high energy and engagement in class!

I believe that being intentional about teaching for 3-D learning, especially regarding the crosscutting concepts, allowed me to bridge the gap between the two performance expectations in the unit, while also allowing students to make connections to prior learning from other units of study. Furthermore, the explicitness of teaching for 3-D learning enabled students to formulate questions that needed to be answered through investigations and by analysis of solar system data, which scientists have gathered through advancements in engineering and technology. If I did not have sufficient time to explicitly plan for these learning opportunities, I truly feel the learning on both the students’ and my own part would not have been as rich.    

At the conclusion of this unit, I was able to collaborate with the colleagues to discuss rubrics, performance indicators, and student work. It was through this work that I was better able to shed light on my own instruction, celebrating successes and noting areas that needed tweaking. Additionally, I learned that it is our colleagues who are best situated to help us understand the limits of our ordinary perspective.

Click here to see an example of a scoring guide

Jessica Tetreault

Jessica Tetreault is a middle school math and science teacher at North Country Union Junior High school in Derby, Vermont, and has taught for 15 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in curriculum and development with an emphasis in secondary science education. When not at school, she and her family operate a small organic farm. Her hope is to inspire young people to better understand and feel a connection to the land on which they live.


This article was featured in the August issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to access other articles from the August issue on assessing three-dimensional learning. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.


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