Overview

The My Universe curriculum allows students to explore, tinker with, and discover their universe in an immersive simulated experience, coming to a deep understanding of underlying STEM concepts organically, rather than through rote memorization of discrete science facts. The curriculum consists of a series of directed activities in Giant Army’s Universe Sandbox to engage students in diverse and challenging astrophysics topics, teaching the mechanics of gravity, trajectory, accretion, and others in an organic and experiential environment.
Students begin by observing simulations of the creation of planets, our solar system, and the greater Milky Way galaxy, then manipulate the properties of smaller cosmic objects, planets, and stars (e.g. mass) in order to explore and experience for themselves events that normally occur over vast distances and times. By doing so, they also gain an understanding of systems thinking, a key component of formulating their own scientific hypotheses and theories.

 

Laws of Gravity: Bowling Balls & Teapots

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In this interactive activity, students use Universe Sandbox to learn the basic properties of gravity and its role in accretion. Everyday objects of differing weights and sizes — such as bowling balls and teapots — are placed in space with no initial velocity, allowing students to observe the effects of accretion without other forces acting upon the system itself. By using objects students might encounter in their daily lives, the understanding that both everyday objects and celestial bodies are equally subject to the laws of gravity is fostered. Students make predictions and postulate about what would happen if certain properties in the system changed — for instance, “What do you think will happen if we change the mass of the teapot to that of the Earth?” By running through the scenario multiple times with altered properties, students form a working knowledge of how mass and distance between the objects in the system relate to gravity.

Saving the Earth

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In this  activity, students apply the knowledge gained in the previous session, tasked with saving the Earth from an incoming asteroid by using their mastery of gravitational pull and developing an understanding of velocity. They discover that objects interacting through gravity either orbit, slingshot, or collide —  and some students may even see that several velocities result in stable orbits, while other seemingly stable orbits will become unstable over long periods of time.

Planet X

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Finally, students apply their accumulated knowledge of accretion, velocity, gravity, and trajectory into a final challenge: adding a new planet to our solar system without disrupting its integrity. Through trial and error — recording their observations and making guesses at why their failed attempts did so — students gradually guide the flawed system into a stable state, articulating the reasons for its flaws with accurate STEM terminology.

By responding to a new and foreign object placed within the orbital system, students recognize that each object in a system impacts the behavior of the others, and each follows a set of rules that relate to gravity, velocity, and trajectory. Understanding the rules of a system thusly is a solid basis for developing scientific theories.

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