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Earth's Albedo

Environmental Literacy Framework, ANDRILL

This engaging activity introduces students to the concept of albedo and how albedo relates to Earth's energy balance.

The activity takes about two class periods.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 2 Performance Expectations, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 6 Cross Cutting Concepts, 5 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Earth's Energy balance
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1b
Sunlight warms the planet
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a
Equilibrium and feedback loops in climate system
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2f

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.
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

  • Positive and negative aspects of the model should be discussed beforehand with students. In particular, what do the popcorn kernels represent? Why are there 100 of them per trial? The text says "energy packets," which isn't concrete enough for students to grasp. In fact, each kernel represents 1% (which is why there are 100 kernels) of incoming solar radiation that will be reflected and absorbed by each type of land surface. How many kernels fall on each type of surface depends on its extent (area). Teachers might ask students to predict which land surface type they think will have the most corn kernels landing on it? Which will have the fewest?
  • Have maps and containers with 100 popcorn kernels prepared before students do the activity. Explain to students what the kernels represent.

About the Science

  • Albedo is the reflectivity of solar radiation by a given surface. This albedo is different over the ocean versus over snow and vegetation. The activity uses a very simple model for students to explore how the albedo of different land surfaces affects Earth's energy balance and climate change.
  • Students use a world map of global biomes and energy packets represented by popcorn kernels to explore and calculate the average yearly percentage of energy that is absorbed or reflected. Then they predict what will happen as Earth's snow and ice cover decrease due to climate change.
  • In this activity, students predict how climate change is influencing the amount of snow and ice cover, which, in tun, changes Earth's albedo.
  • Comments from expert scientist: This activity tries to explain the concept of Earth's albedo in a very simplified manner using easily available materials like popcorn kernels, world map (which is given in the activity material), etc. This interesting approach makes this concept easy to grasp by young learners.

About the Pedagogy

  • The lesson is a good example of active learning. Students take data, do some simple calculations, and compute the differences between the amount of energy reflected and absorbed by different types of biomes.
  • The results of the investigation are striking and easy for students to understand. The activity will lead students to use their data to form their own ideas and conclusions about the role of ice and oceans in climate change instead of learning about these concepts from a lecture or reading.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The student handouts are attractive and written at an appropriate level for 6 - 12 grade students. A PowerPoint presentation with good images and text is provided. A modest amount of background information and a glossary are provided for both teachers and students.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 2

MS-ESS3-5:Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.

MS-PS4-2: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

MS-ESS3.D1:Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.

MS-PS4.B1:When light shines on an object, it is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through the object, depending on the object’s material and the frequency (color) of the light.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 6

Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change, Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

MS-C1.4:Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data.

MS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or 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-C5.3:Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion).

MS-C7.4:Systems in dynamic equilibrium are stable due to a balance of feedback mechanisms.

Science and Engineering Practices: 5

Developing and Using Models, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P1.1:Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.

MS-P2.7:Develop and/or use a model to generate data to test ideas about phenomena in natural or designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs, and those at unobservable scales.

MS-P5.4:Apply mathematical concepts and/or processes (e.g., ratio, rate, percent, basic operations, simple algebra) to scientific and engineering questions and problems.

MS-P6.1:Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena.

MS-P8.2:Integrate qualitative and/or quantitative scientific and/or technical information in written text with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings.

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