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Misconceptions about size and distance: How big is big?

Savannah Robertson

A problem that most middle to high school students have is that lack of perspective on the
size and distance of objects. Its easy to say that things are large or small but the part that really
confuses people is how large or how small is it actually. When students dont understand the big
picture it is easy for them to jump to conclusions about things related to the topic. In the same
way that learning in science can be considered to be a sequential process, so can the development
of misconceptions, so that once a misconception has been acquired it may be carried on and built
upon further.(Thompson) When students are used to measuring things in simple increments
such as inches, feet, and miles it is hard to understand measurements using the speed of light to
determine a distance or using exponents. When it comes to money it is sometimes unfathomable
to deal with a dollar amount as large as something like our national debt is which is 18 trillion
dollars. When something is so incredibly large it creates a gap in knowledge because in everyday
life you normally dont have to contemplate the extreme size of something as great as a star.
There seems to be a large over and underestimation of objects that are far too large to
understand. I have picked out 5 common misconceptions to pinpoint and get students to realize
these underestimation and overestimations of size and distance.
To understand more about how students over or underestimate size and distance I
interviewed 4 high school students; 2 girls and 2 boys.
Student #1
Chloe: high school freshman goes to Woodridge High school, currently in
Physical Science
Student #2
Sydney: high school freshman goes to Woodridge High School, currently in
Physical Science
Student #3
Logan: high school freshman goes to Woodridge High School, currently in
Physical Science
Student #4
Adam: high school freshman goes to Woodridge High School, currently in
All of the following questions can be solved using conversion mathematics or backed up using
simple understanding of science relationships.
For my first misconception of this topic I chose the size of space and the distance
between objects in the universe. I decided to choose this one because of the common idea that it
is possible to travel to other solar systems and for aliens to reach us. This misconception is
further promoted by unrealistic space travel movies and TV shows that make travelling from star
to star easy to accomplish and realistic. To get students to understand this misconception more I
decided to go with a question dealing with our solar systems relationship to our nearest star
Alpha Centauri which is 4 light years away.

Question: If I had a model where the distance of the Earth to the Sun was about a foot,
how far away would the model distance be for our nearest star?
Student #1- 10 feet
Student #2- 2 inches
Student #3- 12 feet
Student #4- 17 feet
The correct answer for this question was all the way in Hawaii. This question involves students
understanding how large a light year actually is and then multiplying that number by 4 which
results in an incredibly large number. Students moderately underestimated the distance from
the Earth to the Sun, and dramatically underestimated the distances to the nearest star and to the
nearest galaxy.(Miller)

For my second misconception I wanted to target the size of the population. In physical
science when students learn about the effects of gravity and Newtons third law they will
sometimes ask about the effects on gravity if everyone on earth would gather in one place and
jump. What students forget is how little the population is compared to the size of the Earth. To
understand how little effect the population would have on the something as massive as the Earth
I asked the following question.
Question: If I lined everyone on the Earth back to back and side to side how much area in
square miles would they take up?
Student #1: State of Florida
Student #2: State of Alaska
Student #3: State of California
Student #4: State of Texas
The correct answer is about 500 square miles which is a little under the size of Los Angeles. This
answer confuses people because they think of 7 billion as such a large number but in comparison
with the size of the Earth which is 197 million square miles this is barely a speck. The answer to
the common question if everyone would get together and jump at the same time would it mess
with the Earths gravity or spin, the answer is no.
Another misconception about size is how big stars really are. Sometimes people will
overestimate the size of the earth and underestimate the size of the Stars. People may understand
that stars are very large but how large is the question that seems to stump many students. To
better understand the size comparison I shrunk down the Earth to the size of a golf ball which is
an easy, relatable object.
Question: If the Earth were the size of a golf ball how large would the Sun be in
Student #1: size of a shoe box
Student #2: size of a tennis ball
Student #3: size of a trampoline
Student #4: size of a basketball

The correct answer is about 15 feet in diameter. Another fun fact if the Earth were golf ball size
Sirius the brightest star is our sky would be the size of Mount Everest.
An extremely common misconception for students and adults is that seasons are caused by the
how near or far the Earth is from the Sun as it makes its revolution. This is an easy confusion to
make because people tend to infer that the closer you are to something hot the hotter you will be.
Question: When the Earth is the closest to the Sun what season is the Northern
Hemisphere experiencing?
Student #1: Winter
Student #2: Summer
Student #3: Fall
Student#4: Spring
The correct answer is winter; Earth is the closest to the Sun in early January. The season change
relies mostly on the tilt of the Earth. The revolution of Earth is very close to a circular path
which makes the relationship of distance and season small. When a study asked a group of
students about seasons 10% knew the reasons for the season changes(Trumper)
For our final misconception I wanted to bring up the misconception of how large numbers really
are. In the daily news we constantly hear large numbers being blurted out like they are nothing.
You may hear that Steve Jobs is worth 31 billion dollars, or that the national debt is at 18 trillion
dollars, but how big is that? It is so hard for students to grasp how large numbers are and this is
where misconceptions can be started.
Question: If I had a stack 1 trillion dollar bills how high would my stack reach?
Student #1- to the height of a cloud
Student #2- 40 feet
Student #3- 50 feet
Student #4- to the height of the tallest building in the world Burj Khalifa
Correct answer is 1/4th of the way to the moon. This misconception becomes a problem when
students are learning about exponents. It is easy to understand that one million is 10^6 and one
trillion is 10^12 but understanding size comparison between these is hard to comprehend. The
size comparison for 1 million dollars is only the size of a 35 story building while 1 trillion dollars
is part of the way to the moon, which as you can see is a very large difference.
There are many reasons for the creation of misconceptions in students and people, that
cause a snowball effect of the misunderstanding of topics. Students receive the information about
the concepts through many different pathways the most trustworthy being teachers, parents,
and the media. In a study of misconceptions The correct response rate of senior high school
students was somewhat higher than that of future high school teachers and Future elementary
school teachers got the lowest correct response rate, even lower than that obtained by junior high
school students.(Trumper)This shows the importance of teachers to fully understand the
misconceptions they might have instead of teaching students the wrong information. The next
option would be to ask parents or family members about these misconception but sometimes
when parents or other family members are confronted with questions from their children, rather
than admitting to not knowing the answer, it is common for them to give an incorrect
one.(Thompson) This leaves the media and internet for a way to find a solution but it is not

always 100 percent correct and cannot always be trustworthy. Misconceptions not only need to
be targeted and diffused but the person carrying that misconception needs to be able to realize
they are wrong and find a correct answer to the problem at hand. I stated previously in my paper
that the questions I asked could be concluded through a conversion equations, this is important
because it gives the students a chance to come to correct answer through their own investigation.
But calculations can only take you so far and that is where full understanding of topic is needed
to dispel misconceptions. Learners must first become dissatisfied with their existing
conceptions, in addition to finding new concepts intelligible, plausible, and fruitful, before
conceptual restructuring occurs.(Trumper)

Works Cited
"Grasping Large Numbers." The Endowment for Human Development. THE ENDOWMENT
FOR HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, INC, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
Gupton, Nancy. "Population 7 BillionCould We All Fit in One City?" National Geographic.
National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
"how much is a trillion dollars?" If I had a Trillion Dollars. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
Miller, Brian, and William Brewer. "Misconceptions of Astronomical Distances." International
Journal of Science Education 32.12 (2010): 1549-60. Print.
Thompson, Fiona, and Sue Logue. "An Exploration of Common Student Misconceptions in
Science." International Education Journal 7.4 (2006): 553-59. Print.
Trumper, and Ricardo. "Assessing Students' Basic Astronomy Conceptions from Junior High
School through University." Australian Science Teachers Journal 47.1 (2001): 21. Print.