How do we know what we know? How do we discover and deepen our understanding of concepts? Thomas Wright, the eighteenth-century astronomer and mathematician, noted that “Time and observation will undoubtedly, at last, discover every thing [sic] to us necessary to our natures…” Wright himself used his powers of observation to develop a model that shifted understanding of the universe.
In the November/December issue of The Science Teacher, we suggested that your students might apply the 5 Es of science instruction to Wright’s work to deepen their understanding of the universe.
Engage students by asking them to sketch a model of the universe as they understand it. Allow time to explore Wright’s “A synopsis of the universe, or, the visible world epitomiz’d.” To foster close observation and deep thinking, assign students particular segments of the item to observe alone or with a partner. How do the models in the drawings compare to current models? Record what students notice, the connections they make to prior knowledge and concepts, and what they wonder about.
After they’ve spent time observing and analyzing the item, explain that it was created in 1742 and that Thomas Wright is best remembered for explaining the appearance of the Milky Way as the result of stars being concentrated in a flat disc rather than being randomly distributed through space. Distribute or display the bibliographic information, making sure to scroll down to the “description” section. How does the new information shape their thinking? What new questions do they have?
Students might wonder: How widely accepted were these depictions at the time? How did Wright gather information to develop and support his hypothesis? How do Wright’s models differ from earlier models? To elaborate, they might conduct research and create a model reflecting current understanding of the universe. How does that model compare to the one they created before studying models by Wright and later astronomers? To evaluate learning, invite them to share in small groups and then on an exit card what they have learned and what they still wonder.
Wright’s model, and others, are also featured in the Library of Congress primary source set “Understanding the Cosmos: Changing Models of the Solar System and Universe.” Let us know what surprises your students when they explore the universe–or universes!