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What makes a greenhouse gas a greenhouse gas?

Sara Harris, University of British Columbia

This activity utilizes a PhET greenhouse gas simulation to explore the interaction of different atmospheric gases with different types of radiation.

The lesson takes about one class period.

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
High School: 1 Cross Cutting Concept, 4 Science and Engineering Practices

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 activity supplements a lesson about the greenhouse effect and climate change very well.

About the Science

  • The PhET simulation illustrates, at the molecular level, how five atmospheric gases absorb infrared and visible radiation.
  • Simulation doesn't provide references for the code used in the simulation. Also there are implied units of 'greenhousey-ness' for the different gases, that have no clear relationship to real data on the infrared absorption capabilities of these gases.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students use the simulation to collect data to rank the gases on their absorption of radiation. Students then use the simulation to conduct an experiment which promotes scientific reasoning. A challenge in this regard is deciding what "data" is so that the behavior of the gas molecules can be documented appropriately.
  • The questions provided in the activity are intended to lead students to a thorough understanding of the properties of greenhouse gases, and the suggested assessment furthers this understanding.
  • The activity intends to provide an open-ended exploration and for a range of answers and approaches. It presents some challenges in use primarily because the simulation is relatively simplistic.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • All materials are presented clearly.
  • This activity is very complete and contains a link to the free simulation, student handout, instructor's guide, ideas for assessment, and links to related activities. The completeness of the supporting resources is the primary strength of this activity.
  • The Java-based app is sometimes blocked by Gatekeeper on Apple devices. It is safe to open. PhET Help center provides assistance getting around Gatekeeper here: https://phet.colorado.edu/en/help-center/running-sims/mac.
  • Here is what PhET suggests to trouble-shoot the problem: right-click to open the simulation once (with administrative privileges), which allows subsequent launches to be done without administrative privileges.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

MS-PS1.A4:In a liquid, the molecules are constantly in contact with others; in a gas, they are widely spaced except when they happen to collide. In a solid, atoms are closely spaced and may vibrate in position but do not change relative locations.

High School

Cross Cutting Concepts: 1

Systems and System Models

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

Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

HS-P2.6:Develop and/or use a model (including mathematical and computational) to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and/or solve problems.

HS-P3.2:Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements and consider limitations on the precision of the data (e.g., number of trials, cost, risk, time), and refine the design accordingly.

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P6.1:Make a quantitative and/or qualitative claim regarding the relationship between dependent and independent variables.

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