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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»

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.

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 Content

  • 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.
Entered the Collection: January 2017 Last Reviewed: March 2016

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