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Building a sense of scale in the classroom

September 14, 2011

The junior high school at my school has a complete set of the Powers of 10 Posters in the hallway (none of my internet ninja skills could turn up a link, sorry). They are stunningly beautiful, and I can still remember how thrilling it was when I saw the video for the first time as a physics student myself in high school. As with most things, the website adds a ton, and yet still misses something. Another great website is the scale of the universe.

It takes way more than a watching a video or visiting a website to truly understand the scale of our universe, so I I’ve always thought—what if this were simply a permanent part of our classroom? What if I took one of the walls and marked off a logramithic distance scale from the size of a proton all the way up to the size of the observable universe.

Since I recently sent an email to my students about making extra help fun, I think this might be a great project for our class. I’m working creating these markers to mark off the distance scale:

I’d love some design thoughts here—they’re not as big/modern/edgy as I was hoping—but since I LaTeX’d the numerals, they are perfectly proportioned. If you’re interested in downloading the templates to play with them, here’s a link.

Once we get the scale up, my thought would be to have students print and draw illustrations of objects (perhaps with QR code descriptions) and place them along the scale.

If this ends up successful, I think it’d be equally fun to try to put a similar time scale along the back wall.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2011 9:29 pm

    I think that the log scale is the 800 lb gorilla. 90% will see that as a linear scale, and I can’t say that I’d blame them.

    The universe is just too darn big _and_ too darn small! I think that the video’s the only way, unfortunately.

    • September 17, 2011 4:32 pm

      but this could be a learning opportunity as well. I could ask students when we’re creating this what should go in the middle between 10^4\;\textrm{m} and 10^5\;\textrm{m}. Or where 20,000 m should be plotted. This could get them to start to see what a logarithmic scale means more naturally.

  2. September 15, 2011 8:50 am

    The website “universcale” gives another look at this using silhouettes (

  3. September 17, 2011 4:48 pm

    It’s definitely a good opportunity to introduce them to that. You’d certainly have some kids thinking about that while daydreaming during the year 🙂


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