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Stacking up the Atmosphere

Betsy Youngman, Jean Pennycook, Louise Huffman, LuAnn Dahlman, ANDRILL- University of Nebraska

In this hands-on activity, participants learn the characteristics of the five layers of the atmosphere and make illustrations to represent them. They roll the drawings and place them in clear plastic cylinders, and then stack the cylinders to make a model column of the atmosphere.

Activity takes about one 45-min class period. Additional materials required.

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2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
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Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • The visual of equally-sized tennis ball tubes to represent each layer of the atmosphere will not give the correct impression of the differences in the vertical extents of these layers. On page 3 of the full activity is the description of the layers including the elevation of the top and bottom. If you calculate the vertical extent of each layer and then scale the size of one tennis ball tube to the thickness of the tropopause you can determine how many tennis ball tubes you need stacked on each other to represent the vertical extent of each of the other layers. See the numbers below.
  • Layer top and bottom elevation thickness thickness/thickness of tropopause
    Troposphere:   0-10 km                       10 km           10 km/10 km =   1
    Stratosphere:  10-40 km                      30 km           30 km/10 km =   3
    Mesosphere:    40-80 km                      40 km           40 km/10 km =   4
    Thermosphere:  80-500 km                     420 km         420 km/10 km =  42
    Exosphere:    500-10,000 km                 9500 km        9500 km/10 km = 950 
  • Thus to make a scale model you would need 1 tube to represent the troposphere, 3 tubes on top of each other to represent the stratosphere, 4 tubes to represent the mesosphere, 42 tubes to represent the thermosphere, and 950 tubes to represent the exosphere.

About the Science

  • This activity gives the student an overview of the different layers of the atmosphere and their features including temperatures, composition, percentage of atmosphere's total mass and events/processes that occur in these layers.
  • Earth's Atmosphere Graphic There is a linear vertical scale from 0 to 60 miles and 80 km. Above that the scale changes with a part indicated as 80-500 km for the Thermosphere and 500 - 10,000 km for the Exosphere. However, there is no note that the scale has changed. This may be confusing. The temperature scale needs to be labeled. In addition, the troposphere label is located above the tropopause.
  • Power Point slides #13 Solar Activity - The statement "During period of low activity, less radiation reaches Earth" may technically be true, however, the amount of the change in solar radiation is not large. There could be a misconception here that the changes produce the observed climate changes.
  • #14 Thermosphere - The slide says that the image from space shows the aurora around the south magnetic pole and that a similar ring can be seen in the northern hemisphere. The notes say the picture shows the aurora from space over the north magnetic pole. Enlarging the picture, I think the slide is correct and the note needs to be corrected.
  • Stacking the Atmosphere: Background Information: Troposphere - The statement "Due to uneven heating of Earth's surface, winds are formed by the rising and falling of warm and cool air masses" is slightly incorrect. The large scale latitudinal circulations (Hadley, Ferrel, and Polar cells) are formed by the rising and falling of warm and cool air. Uneven heating produces high and low pressure areas that lead to the formation of horizontal winds.
  • Stratosphere and Ozone Layer - The statement "In the stratosphere, a thin layer of ozone molecules" implies vertically thin. It is not vertically thin; it is just not very dense.
  • Glossary: Mesosphere - the statement that the "atmosphere is very thin" could lead some to think that it is physically thin. It might be better to say "not dense".
  • Comments from expert scientist: Good hands-on activity to help students learn basic facts about the 5 atmospheric layers.

About the Pedagogy

  • This is a hands-on activity in which students write descriptions of a particular atmospheric layer and make an illustration of that layer, which they display in a clear plastic tube. They then stack the tubes on top of each other as a vertical profile of the atmosphere.
  • The visual of equal size tennis ball tubes to represent each layer of the atmosphere will not give the correct impression of the differences in the vertical extent of these layers. This needs to be addressed...see Teaching Tips.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

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