Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
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05-11-2013, 09:59 PM
Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
My middle school students love learning about astronomy. However, the biggest hurdle I have encountered is explaining the Big Bang to them in simple enough terms to understand.

One of the videos we watch -How the Universe Works, narrated by Mike Rowe- is excellent, and does a pretty decent job of explaining the science--except at one point. The scientists say something to the effect of "the entire universe originated from a singularity, a point of infinite density, everything came from nothing."

At this point brows furrow, hands raise, and an audible 'uhhhhh?' permeates the room. With some of the students, this simple statement goes way over their heads and sometimes invalidates any of the other information they have learned about the Big Bang.

My question, for the collective intelligence of this forum, is; how do I simplify an explanation that isn't too 'simple?'
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05-11-2013, 10:16 PM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
a sponge, make them squeeze it really tight and then release it. That way they'll understand how a lot of matter can get in a really small volume, and then just expand

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05-11-2013, 10:16 PM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
Everything observable is accelerating out from a central point
If you rewind time it all meets up to a point in space.

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05-11-2013, 10:30 PM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
(05-11-2013 09:59 PM)jaguar3030 Wrote:  My middle school students love learning about astronomy. However, the biggest hurdle I have encountered is explaining the Big Bang to them in simple enough terms to understand.

One of the videos we watch -How the Universe Works, narrated by Mike Rowe- is excellent, and does a pretty decent job of explaining the science--except at one point. The scientists say something to the effect of "the entire universe originated from a singularity, a point of infinite density, everything came from nothing."

At this point brows furrow, hands raise, and an audible 'uhhhhh?' permeates the room. With some of the students, this simple statement goes way over their heads and sometimes invalidates any of the other information they have learned about the Big Bang.

My question, for the collective intelligence of this forum, is; how do I simplify an explanation that isn't too 'simple?'


Maybe discuss denser objects like black holes or neutron stars as an introduction to the idea that a huge amount of mass can be compressed into a smaller volume than we can comprehend, that the big bang just starts with all matter in this small volume.
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05-11-2013, 11:42 PM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
Some concepts just take time, perhaps. I'd suggest starting the other way around. Explain how we have observed galaxies moving away from each other, and then reverse it backward in time. Even young students should get that if something is moving away from something else, then that would mean earlier it was closer.

If you demonstrate how this expansion is currently, and has been happening with all of the galaxies, and there for the universe, it's a simple matter of reversing it all in closer together, at which point it means they would have all been so close they would have come together at one point in the past.

Then it makes more sense that it all is expanding out from an original "point" when you add back the forward arrow of time from that beginning point. How it all fit together in one small space will still be difficult for them, but if you explain neutron stars, and black holes, it should help with that a little. The nothing part will likely take more time to get a grip on.

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05-11-2013, 11:44 PM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
(05-11-2013 11:42 PM)Raptor Jesus Wrote:  Some concepts just take time, perhaps. I'd suggest starting the other way around. Explain how we have observed galaxies moving away from each other, and then reverse it backward in time. Even young students should get that if something is moving away from something else, then that would mean earlier it was closer.

If you demonstrate how this expansion is currently, and has been happening with all of the galaxies, and there for the universe, it's a simple matter of reversing it all in closer together, at which point it means they would have all been so close they would have come together at one point in the past.

Then it makes more sense that it all is expanding out from an original "point" when you add back the forward arrow of time from that beginning point. How it all fit together in one small space will still be difficult for them, but if you explain neutron stars, and black holes, it should help with that a little. The nothing part will likely take more time to get a grip on.

Yes, that.

If you explain the history of the science, it all makes sense.

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06-11-2013, 07:00 AM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
Don't be afraid to say "I don't know". In a very real sense using the word singularity is just a fancy way of saying "I don't know". It's a mathematical nonsense. It may well also be wrong. Various credible models don't include a singularity.

All the big bang theory can really talk about is how the universe behaved after it had already reached a certain point. What happened before could be a nonsense (there is no before), a singularity, a multiverse, or an eternal universe. If I'm explaining to my children I tell them we don't know and I don't know.

Give me your argument in the form of a published paper, and then we can start to talk.
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06-11-2013, 08:47 AM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
(05-11-2013 10:16 PM)nach_in Wrote:  a sponge, make them squeeze it really tight and then release it. That way they'll understand how a lot of matter can get in a really small volume, and then just expand

Good idea..I do something like this--using a crumpled up piece of paper, then pulling it apart to represent the expansion of space.
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06-11-2013, 09:04 AM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
I think this is Slowly explained well for M students.




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06-11-2013, 09:44 AM
RE: Explaining the Big Bang...to middle schoolers
(05-11-2013 11:42 PM)Raptor Jesus Wrote:  Some concepts just take time, perhaps. I'd suggest starting the other way around. Explain how we have observed galaxies moving away from each other, and then reverse it backward in time. Even young students should get that if something is moving away from something else, then that would mean earlier it was closer.

If you demonstrate how this expansion is currently, and has been happening with all of the galaxies, and there for the universe, it's a simple matter of reversing it all in closer together, at which point it means they would have all been so close they would have come together at one point in the past.

Then it makes more sense that it all is expanding out from an original "point" when you add back the forward arrow of time from that beginning point. How it all fit together in one small space will still be difficult for them, but if you explain neutron stars, and black holes, it should help with that a little. The nothing part will likely take more time to get a grip on.


This is usually the approach I take--working backwards. The biggest hurdle with this is the understanding that when we look at distant galaxies we are looking back in time. We then talk about light having a particular speed, just like sound does. The demonstration that helps with this is watching a basketball being dropped from a distance--the basketball is seen(speed of light) to hit the ground first, and a little while after the 'thump'(speed of sound) is heard. This helps quite a few students.

We also talked about how 'time' can be affected by speed and gravity. The release of the movie Ender's Game makes for a good discussion on this.

I can see the wheels turning in some of their head..even when their responses are still full of misconceptions. They do provide me with quite a few chuckles though.

Student: So time doesn't have to be constant?
Me: Good. That's right.
Student: So when god made the earth in 6 days, maybe it took longer than the days that we are used to?
Me: (realizing this was how my path to atheism started) Scientists have accurately formulated the age of the Earth, and the Earth is very, very old--billions of years. (And then diverging from the question) What does a 'day' mean? Let's look at how long a 'day' is on other planets.
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I can't fault the student in the slightest...their young mind is wrapping new knowledge around previously acquired knowledge and trying to make things fit together.

I can say though, that teaching is a very unique career. It brings with it some of the lowest of the lows, and the highest of the highs. I'm always trying to find new ways to teach 'better.'
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