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Fifth Grade Hands-On Science Sends Students to the Stars

Students used flashlights to represent stars while their partners observed how the size of the light changed with distance.

Students used flashlights to represent stars while their partners observed how the size of the light changed with distance.

Sept. 28, 2016 (TAMPA, Fla.) – Stars twinkled inside the Farish Center as Corbett Prep teachers put the galaxy into students’ hands.

Fifth graders kicked off their science unit on the earth and space systems with an astronomical activity, using flashlights to simulate the brightness of stars to observe how the size of the “stars” changed based on distance.

Brain scans have shown that physically experiencing lessons, particularly scientific concepts, helps students better understand what they have learned and improves their performance in class, according to a 2015 study published in Psychological Science. Taking a hands-on approach to learning activated sensory and motor-related parts of the brain among students in the study.

The study of Sun-Earth-Moon systems naturally lends itself to interactive science lessons that integrate math and literacy, said fifth grade teacher Michelle Hill. Students design scale models and gather data to express in bar graphs or circle graphs. As they learn about water, they calculate the ratio of salt to fresh water on earth. Literacy is a necessary component as students research and report on how systems on Earth interact with systems in space.

Fifth grade teachers began the unit with a discussion of systems of space, which includes the earth. Then students had a chance to move as they began to explore the distance and brightness of stars.

Students wrote hypotheses about what they thought would happen during the experiment and in small groups measured and marked two distances from a starting point. Observers lined up against the wall while a pair of partners stood at a close distance. They shined the flashlights from the same distance before one of the partners stepped back several more feet. Observers compared and recorded the size of the light and how it appeared to diminish the farther back students stood.

Their observations will help the fifth graders relate the distance between Earth and the sun and other stars seen in the night sky to relative brightness. Students use data to calculate the difference in the size of Earth and that of the sun, designing and making scale models based on those figures that accurately represent the ratio of their relative size.

Filling Corbett Prep’s Farish Center with starlight was the first step to bringing these concepts to life.


Founded in 1968, Corbett Preparatory School of IDS (formerly Independent Day School - Corbett Campus) is a fully accredited, nonsectarian private school located in Tampa’s Carrollwood neighborhood. The school serves over 500 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and offers the International Baccalaureate program of study for all students. Teachers are endorsed in gifted education through a master’s level grant with the University of South Florida College of Education. Corbett Prep balances a dynamic, nurturing and safe learning environment with high standards and high expectations to develop a positive approach to life and learning. Corbett Prep has become recognized as an exemplary school with over 7,000 visitors observing and learning from Corbett Prep teachers. For more information, visit or contact the Admissions Office at (813) 961-3087.