How Can We Use the Sky to Navigate?

How Can We Use the Sky to Navigate?

How Can We Use the Sky to Navigate? is part of Smithsonian Science for the Classroom, a new curriculum series by the Smithsonian Science Education Center. It is aligned to a group of grade 5 standards. It has a focus on earth and space science with a secondary focus on physical science and engineering. In this module, students:

  • Develop and use models to support an argument that gravity is directed toward the center of a spherical Earth
  • Use evidence of the Sun and stars’ daily pattern of motion to support a claim that Earth rotates on an axis
  • Use a model to predict the annual pattern of daylight at the school’s location
  • Carry out an investigation to determine which of two solutions is better for measuring the altitude of Polaris
  • Engage in argument about the plausibility of sailing long distances without instruments by using evidence that the patterns of the Sun and stars can be used to navigate

Below are digital resources that support teaching of this module.

Lesson 1: Set Sail

Sailboats at the Horizon
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This file shows two images of a sailboat at the horizon, one taken while the photographer was sitting and one while the photographer was standing.

Cargo Ship at the Horizon
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This video shows a cargo ship so far away that only part of the ship is visible.

Cargo Ship
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This is a close-up image of a cargo ship similar to the one in the Cargo Ship at the Horizon video.

Earth Shape Discussion
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This file presents a discussion between two friends about Earth’s shape.

Lesson 2: Boston and Santiago

Hidden Shadows
This video was taken in Hawaii in the month of May when the Sun passed directly overhead. Encourage students to observe the objects and ignore the captions.

Boston and Santiago Shadows
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These two photos show the shadows made by the same upright dowel in Santiago, Chile, and Boston, Massachusetts, at noon on March 21.

Lesson 4: Distances Can Be Deceiving

Starry Night
This link is the login for Starry Night®. Use the access code to gain access to the program. The software shows the sky at the selected time, date, and location. If you need support using Starry Night®, call 1-866-688-4175 or email

Street Lights
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This photo shows street lights that vary in apparent size because they are located at different relative distances from the photographer.

Lesson 5: Moving Shadows

Earth from Space
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This picture of Earth taken from space shows half of Earth lit by the Sun and half of Earth in the dark.

Solar Position Calendar
This links to a calculator that can be used to determine the altitude of the sun in the sky for a given location, date, and time.

Lesson 8: Modeling Daylight

Earth-Sun Model
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This file shows the set-up for the Lesson 8 activity.

Lesson 9: It's Been a Long Day

Sunrise and Sunset
This link provides daily sunrise and sunset times for a given location. Convert a p.m. time to a military time by adding 12 hours to it.

Lesson 10: Where on Earth?

Latitude and Longitude
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This file includes resources to teach students about latitude and longitude.

This video reviews the concepts of latitude and longitude.

Lesson 11: Things Are Looking Up

Sextant Reading
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This file shows students how to use the sextants they will build.

Solution Testing
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This file shows the distances students will measure to test their solution and questions for students to consider when analyzing their test.

Lesson 13: Sweet Potato Mystery Part 1

Pandanus Weaving
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This file shows students an example of weaving with construction paper.

Lesson 14: Sweet Potato Mystery Part 2

Marquesas Islands and Peru Map
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This map shows the relative locations of the Marquesas Islands, Peru, and 10° south latitude.

Lesson 15: Sweet Potato Mystery Part 3

Sweet Potato Mystery
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This file describes recent research about the relationship between sweet potatoes in Polynesia and sweet potatoes in South America.

Drinking Water Problem
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This file provides details to consider the problem of providing enough drinking water to crew members sailing from the Marquesas Islands to Peru.

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