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Scale models are often used to help students develop a better intuitive grasp of the solar system as a whole. Because the sizes of the planets are so tiny compared to the sizes of their orbits, one cannot really experience both at the same time. One must necessarily have two levels of experience, one for the planets themselves, the other for their orbits. The point of a good scale model of the solar system should be to connect these two levels of experiences.
With many scale models currently in use, however, these two levels of experience are rather disconnected. The models which place the planets in different buildings scattered around a city, for example, are especially problematic for children, who do not necessarily have a good feel for the distances involved in driving from one part of the city to another.
At the Lake Afton Public Observatory in Wichita, Kansas we have constructed a scale model in which we connect these two levels of experience by the physical actions of the student. We are able to do this because our scale model is as small as one can possibly make it and still have the planets visible, and so students are able to physically walk from one planet to another. The scale planets are mounted in transparent containers atop red poles. Obviously one needs to be standing right next to a planet see it, but the poles the planets are mounted on are all visible from the sun. Thus the student can see, off in the distance, where Pluto is, and then physically walk from the sun to Pluto in order to see it close up. Since the whole model is visible at once, one can even set up a portable telescope at "Earth" and look at "Saturn."
This model has been used succesfully with groups ranging from 1st grade to college level, and with class sizes ranging from 6 to 60. In this paper we describe Lake Afton Public Observatory's scale model solar system and some of the many ways in which it has been succesfully used. We argue that this type of scale model--in which both the sizes of the planets and their orbits are to the same scale, and for which the entire model can be seen simultaneously-- has many advantages.
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