Jump to this Activity »
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.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 4 Cross Cutting Concepts, 7 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 3 Cross Cutting Concepts, 4 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

World's climate definition
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2a
Greenhouse effect
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2c
Climate is complex
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Climate is complex

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

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.

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

  • 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.
  • PowerPoint 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

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

MS-ESS2.A2:The planet’s systems interact over scales that range from microscopic to global in size, and they operate over fractions of a second to billions of years. These interactions have shaped Earth’s history and will determine its future.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 4

Systems and System Models, Patterns, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

MS-C1.2: Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural and human designed systems

MS-C3.1:Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small.

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

MS-C4.3:Models are limited in that they only represent certain aspects of the system under study.

Science and Engineering Practices: 7

Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P1.4:Ask questions to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.

MS-P2.1:Evaluate limitations of a model for a proposed object or tool.

MS-P2.2:Develop or modify a model— based on evidence – to match what happens if a variable or component of a system is changed.

MS-P2.5:Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena.

MS-P4.2:Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships.

MS-P6.2:Construct an explanation using models or representations.

MS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information (e.g. about a proposed object, tool, process, system) in writing and/or through oral presentations.

High School

Cross Cutting Concepts: 3

Patterns, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models

HS-C1.1:Different patterns may be observed at each of the scales at which a system is studied and can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena

HS-C3.4:Using the concept of orders of magnitude allows one to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

Science and Engineering Practices: 4

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.2:ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.

HS-P2.3:Develop, revise, and/or use a model based on evidence to illustrate and/or predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system

HS-P4.5:Evaluate the impact of new data on a working explanation and/or model of a proposed process or system.

HS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information or ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically).

Jump to this Activity »