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Students are introduced to this digital space simulator and manipulate the various properties of everyday objects in space to learn that everything is subjected to the laws of gravity.

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PlayMaker School


Universe Sandbox is a powerful and realistic interactive space and gravity simulator. Players can witness scale space simulations of our solar system and galaxy, but they can also see what happens when they manipulate the properties of planets and stars (e.g. mass) or add new bodies in space. The value of Universe Sandbox is its openness, overall accuracy, and impressive visual graphics as it invites players to explore, tinker, and discover their universe in an immersive experience.

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Experience breakdown

Lesson Plan Overview

In this interactive activity, students use Universe Sandbox to learn the basic properties of gravity and how it relates to accretion. The facilitator will acquaint students with Universe Sandbox via a whole-class activity in which the facilitator wall-projects a simple scenario of two everyday objects, such as a bowling ball and a teapot, in space with no initial velocity. When the simulation runs in Universe Sandbox, students see the laws of physics play out in that scenario.

The rationale for using objects students may encounter in their daily lives is to foster the understanding that even everyday objects are subject to the laws of gravity.

The facilitator prompts students to make predictions and to postulate about what would happen if certain properties changed. For instance, the facilitator may ask, "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, students form a working knowledge of how mass and distance between the objects relate to gravity. Their observations are recorded.

By using Universe Sandbox, students are exposed to a simulation that models the physics of the universe. Students are also asked to make observations and based on those observations, are asked to determine relevant variables and look for relationships. Students then learn to refine answers to their observation as new information becomes available, leading them to realize that science isn’t just about “answers”, but the process of asking questions, testing ideas, and learning and knowing. By the end of this activity, students should have an intuitive sense for the concept of gravity and be able to use that concept in future problem solving.

2nd NOTE: The scenario file used in this lesson plan we created is available for download on the left-hand side under "Case Studies".

Learning Objectives

  • Students learn how to use simulations to test hypotheses and design experiments.
  • Students recognize that all matter attracts matter, quantified by the idea of gravity.
  • Students state that gravity depends directly on the masses of the objects and indirectly on the distance between them.
  • Objects accelerate toward each other in space due to gravity. As the distance between the decreases, their velocity increases due to the force of gravity.

materials & Prep

  • Facilitator computer with a projector with Universe Sandbox and 1st Scenario file preloaded.
  • For part one of this lesson plan, we created a scenario of two every day objects with no relative speeds (video below).
  • For parts two and three of this lesson plan, computers or laptops for students are needed, each with Universe Sandbox and all three scenarios preloaded (the 2nd and 3rd scenario will be described in the other lesson plan pages). We recommend one machine for every three students.

Scenario 1: Two objects with no relative speeds.

Lesson Steps

STEP 1: The facilitator opens up Universe Sandbox and opens the "Teapot and Bowling Ball" scenario.

Initial Observations

STEP 2: The facilitator then selects “play” and asks the students to make observations.

Critical prompt: Ask students what they observe. Be sure that students notice that the objects move toward each other, and that they accelerate as they move.

NOTE: Students generally observe that the two objects are coming together in vacuum of space. They may not notice that the objects accelerate as they move closer together.

Student Explanation

STEP 3: The facilitator elicits reasons why the two objects might be coming together.

Critical checkpoint: Make sure that all kids get on board with gravity as the reason why they are coming together.

NOTE: Students usually answer “gravity”. The teacher then probes more deeply, asking questions like “What is gravity? What does gravity depend on?”

Adjusting Object Properties

STEP 4: The facilitator clicks on one of the objects, displaying the characteristics menu and asks the students which characteristics they might want to change (e.g., mass).

NOTE: Most commonly, they may want to change the mass one of the objects or change the distance between the two objects.

Step 5: The facilitator leads a discussion on the relationship between mass and distance. Sample questions include "What did you observe?"

Critical Prompt: By the end of the discussion, students should understand that as mass increases, the force of gravity increases and as mass decreases, the force of gravity decreases. They should also recognize the role that distance plays in the relationship between mass and gravitational pull.

(Optional - Advanced): Some students might realize that the closer objects are to one another, the greater the gravitational force and therefore as objects approach one another their acceleration increases too.

Articulating Predictions


Common Core - English Language Arts

Science & Technical subjects

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

Speaking and Listening
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

Next Generation Science


MS-ESS1-2. Develop and use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system.


MS-PS2-2. Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object

MS-PS2-4. Construct and present arguments using evidence to support the claim that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of interacting objects.

ISTE NETS - Digital Age Skills

1. Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes
Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues
Identify trends and forecast possibilities
2. Communication and Collaboration
Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media
Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats

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