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Modeling Earth's Energy Balance
https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/complexsystems/activities/energy_balance_model.html

Kirsten Menking, Vassar College , Kirsten Menking, On the Cutting Edge/SERC

In this activity, learners use the STELLA box modeling software to determine Earth's temperature based on incoming solar radiation and outgoing terrestrial radiation. Starting with a simple black body model, the exercise gradually adds complexity by incorporating albedo, then a 1-layer atmosphere, then a 2-layer atmosphere, and finally a complex atmosphere with latent and sensible heat fluxes. With each step, students compare the modeled surface temperature to Earth's actual surface temperature, thereby providing a check on how well each increasingly complex model captures the physics of the actual system.

Activity takes about two lab periods plus homework assignment. Access to STELLA modeling software is required, but a free trial version is available.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»


Climate Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Climate Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

Energy Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Energy Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
Other materials addressing:
G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
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.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:F) Working with models and simulations
Other materials addressing:
F) Working with models and simulations.
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

  • This is an upper-level activity. As such, it requires some prerequisite knowledge of modeling. Familiarity with STELLA modeling software would also be helpful.

About the Science

  • Background readings for students are not available in digital form, but the reference is provided.
  • Step-by-step instructions will help students learn about the dynamics of the atmosphere and appreciate the complexity of Earth's energy balance.
  • Comment from expert scientist: The main strength is in starting with a highly idealized system and then incrementally adding complexity towards a model that looks more like the real world. This stepwise process will enable students to grasp the basics and then to understand the roles of additional processes in Earth's energy budget.

About the Pedagogy

  • Use of STELLA model is engaging for students. Students need to be savvy in modeling in order to complete this activity.
  • Grouping students with different knowledge of modeling together will likely help the students with less familiarity to complete the activity.
  • Students need to have sufficient quantitative skills to be able to master this activity.

Technical Details/Ease of Use


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