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Investigating Climate Change at a Macroscopic and Microscopic Level

Amy Rouinfar, PhET

This activity uses two interactive simulations to illustrate climate change, 1) at the micro/molecular level - modeling the impact of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere on surface temperature and 2) at the macro level - modeling changes in glacier thickness and flow as a result of rising surface temperature.

Activity takes two to three 45-minute lesson periods.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 2 Cross Cutting Concepts, 3 Science and Engineering Practices
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

  • Educator should definitely familiarize her/himself with the simulations before using them with students.
  • Students should be encouraged to partner and experiment with simulations (adjusting parameters, etc) before beginning the activity.
  • This exercise, also from the PhET site, could be used to guide students as they learn to use the Greenhouse Effect simulation: https://phet.colorado.edu/en/contributions/view/4110

About the Science

  • Activity addresses impacts of increasing global temperatures at the molecular level (relationship between increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere and rise in surface temperature) and macro level (changes in glaciers) through two interactive PhET simulations: "Glaciers" and "Greenhouse Effect".
  • Passed initial science review - expert science review pending.

About the Pedagogy

  • Activity is guided by questions that prompt students to play with the simulations, observe interactions among variables as they adjust parameters, and make claims about relationships among variables.
  • Two well-designed and easy-to-use simulations guide the activity:
    1) "Glaciers": provides introductory and advanced levels to explore climate change at the macroscopic level.
    2) "The Greenhouse Effect": provides three separate interactive tabs (greenhouse effect, gas layers, photon absorption) to explore climate change at the microscopic level.
  • Simulations may be confusing at first blush but offer good opportunity for students to discuss what they observe and help each other make sense of the interactions modeled in the simulations.
  • Supportive information, including a lesson plan, is available from the website (no help, teacher, or student guide).

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Technical requirements for running the simulations are included here https://phet.colorado.edu/en/help-center/running-sims/mac#q16-header
  • PhET requires free registration to access simulations and supporting resources.
  • Simulations can be run online, embedded, or downloaded.
  • The Java-based app is sometimes blocked by Gatekeeper on Apple devices. It is safe to open. Here is how PhET suggests to troubleshoot the problem: Right-click to open the simulation once (with administrative privileges) which would allow subsequent launches to be done without administrative privileges.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Cross Cutting Concepts: 2

Systems and System Models, Patterns

MS-C1.1:Macroscopic patterns are related to the nature of microscopic and atomic-level structure.

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.

Science and Engineering Practices: 3

Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

MS-P2.4:Develop and/or revise a model to show the relationships among variables, including those that are not observable but predict observable phenomena.

MS-P4.4:Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.

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

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, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

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-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-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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