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The Earth's Heat Budget

Roy Plotnick, National Association of Geoscience Teachers

Hands-on laboratory activity that allows students to investigate the effects of distance and angle on the input of solar radiation at Earth's surface, the role played by albedo, the heat capacity of land and water, and how these cause the seasons. Students predict radiative heating based on simple geometry and experiment to test their hypotheses.

Activity takes about two class periods. Additional materials are required.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 8 Cross Cutting Concepts, 12 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1c
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a

Energy Literacy

Other materials addressing:
1.1 Energy is a quantity.
Other materials addressing:
1.2 Thermal energy.
Other materials addressing:
1.3 Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
Other materials addressing:
2.4 Water stores and transfers energy.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
C) Energy.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Educator might want to change the reference to Chicago to the location of the school. This would require creating a new version of both the Powerpoint and the student activity sheet.
  • Clarify the geometric relation between latitude and the noon sun angle.
  • Assessment is suggested, but it would benefit from a few more questions that engage students in abstracting from the activity and doing independent thinking.

About the Science

  • Students make simple measurements of energy and connect these to Earth's processes.
  • Educator might have to find additional background materials.
  • Activity tests misconceptions with hands-on experimentation through which students learn about topics that may seem complex until you start playing with them.The activity effectively addresses the misconception of the reason for the seasons being the distance between Sun and Earth.

About the Pedagogy

  • Hands-on, small group lab activity in which students experimentally measure three important factors of Earth's heating budget (distance to sun and angle, albedo, heat capacity).
  • Student learning of the complex content is well-guided by questions.
  • Hands-on activities and measurements followed by guiding questions will help visual learners to understand the concept.
  • Powerpoint presentation should be used to support this activity. The link is given in the reference materials but is easy to miss - see the supporting references section.
  • Elegant pedagogic design.
  • Great way of relating the abstract concept of Earth's heat budget to local conditions (in exercise: Chicago).
  • Students will have to follow instructions carefully in order to collect the correct measurements.
  • Students will probably need consistent guidance through the activities.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Solar cells might not be readily available but are not an extravagant purchase from a typical science budget.
  • If the experimental part of the activity takes up too much class time, parts of the activity could be done with online interactives.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

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