Created by gamedesk logo
Science > Astronomy


Students recognize that each object in the system impacts the behavior of the others, following a set of rules that relate to gravity, velocity, and trajectory. Understanding the rules of a system is a basis for scientific theory.

grade level:
profile avatar
Created by
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.

more less

Experience breakdown

Lesson Plan Overview

Using Universe Sandbox, students are challenged to add an object to a working orbital system (e.g., the moon as it orbits the Earth) without disrupting the overall system integrity.

Students systematically record their observations, noting the relationships between properties of a body in space and its relation to a system (e.g., mass, velocity, trajectory).

Students are prompted to explain why their solutions work or don't work by talking through their processes. Misconceptions are identified and resolved by revision of scenarios until intended results are achieved.

In this scenario, students respond to an additional object placed within an orbital system. They recognize that each object in the system impacts the behavior of the others, and follow a set of rules that relate to gravity, velocity, and trajectory. Understanding the rules of a system is a basis for scientific theory.

NOTE: At this point, students should be familiar enough with the mechanics and interface of Universe Sandbox to play, manipulate, and simulate. However, it may be likely that some students will struggle with the controls. We will attempt to document some of the issues that we came across when we facilitate this activity.

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 understand that the addition of one object can drastically change the complexity of a system.
  • Students further refine their understanding of gravity, velocity, and trajectory.

materials & prep

  • Facilitator computer with a projector with Universe Sandbox and 3rd Scenario file preloaded.
  • Computers or laptops for students, each with Universe Sandbox and the 3rd Scenario file preloaded (we recommend one machine for every three students).
  • This scenario has the moon orbiting the earth in a stable orbit. However, the third object, which we named Planet X, will crash into the earth if the simulation is played. A screenshot of the scenario we created is below.

Students will be challenged to balance these three bodies in an orbital system.

Lesson Steps

STEP 1: Students are shown a three-body system scenario in Universe Sandbox where Planet X collides into the Moon, and the Moon crashes into the Earth.

A student makes a hypothesis about what will happen in the Planet X simulation.

STEP 2:After playing the scenario, have students explain the outcome using correct terminology (e.g., gravity, velocity, trajectory). You may ask leading questions such as:

  • Why did the Moon/Planet X combination crash into the Earth?
  • What happened to the velocity of the Moon/Planet X combination that might explain why it crashed into the Earth?

A student reflects on her prediction, and the educator guides discussion.

STEP 3: Challenge students to, once again, save the Earth! This time, they will have to create a working orbit with all three bodies - the Earth, the Moon, and Planet X - in space. They are allowed to only manipulate the properties and location of Planet X.

Students should familiarize themselves with the controls if they are still getting comfortable with Universe Sandbox by playing the simulation, moving the camera angle, and taking note of changes in the properties of the Earth, Moon, and Planet X as the simulation runs.

STEP 4:Monitor the progress of groups. Different groups will have varying degrees of success with maintaining an orbital system with all three bodies.

For struggling groups, you may ask questions such as:

  • Why do you think your orbital system didn't work?
  • Are there properties of Planet X that you haven't experimented with yet?

For successful groups, challenge them to think critically about their system with questions such as:

  • Which properties of Planet X did you change? Why did you think to change those?
  • Can you design a system that will last infinitely?

A facilitator asks a student about her strategy for maintaining a successful system for 246 days in Universe Sandbox.

STEP 5:Call all students back from their groups and debrief. Ask students how long they were able to maintain the three-body system.

You may ask reflective questions such as:

  • What were some of the things you did to create stability in your system?
  • Were you able to create a system without affecting the Earth's orbital path of the Sun?

Be sure to connect the students' experience with the simulation back to the core physics concepts. Make sure students understand how concepts like mass, velocity, and gravity played a role in the success or failure of their systems.

A student makes an observation about a unique occurrence in Universe Playbox, and the educator relates it back to science concepts.


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.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table)

ISTE Standards

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
Create original works as a means of personal or group expression
Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues
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
4. critical thinking, problem solving, & Decision making
Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.
Identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation
Plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project
Collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions
Use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions

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.

Click here to edit header

topic discussion
comments powered by Disqus

Your feedback has been successfully sent! You will receive a response as soon as possible from a member of our Educade team.