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Absorption by atmospheric gases of incoming and outgoing radiation

Sara Harris, University of British Columbia, CLEAN Community Collection

In this activity, students use the absorption spectra of greenhouse gases to explore the nature of the greenhouse effect.

Activity length: One 50-minute class period

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 1 Cross Cutting Concept, 1 Science and Engineering Practice

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

  • The science is somewhat abstract, so educator should visit with each group to make sure they are on the right track before the jigsaw groups switch roles.
  • Students will need to have some prior knowledge of Earth's energy spectrum and greenhouse gases before effectively being able to complete this assignment.
  • While written for undergraduate level, this resource can be used at high school level with modifications (e.g. background material and rubric).
  • Great opportunity to address the misconception that heat is trapped and cannot escape our atmosphere.

About the Science

  • This activity helps students understand how different atmospheric gases absorb electromagnetic radiation.
  • Sources for graphs are cited in the teacher notes.

About the Pedagogy

  • This activity uses the jigsaw technique and has students working in small groups.
  • The step-by-step nature of the exercise allows students to understand a complex concept using visual data.
  • Students contrast atmospheric constituents based on their absorption spectra and identify greenhouse and non-greenhouse gases based on their absorption spectra.
  • Students use graphs to determine the wavelengths at which each gas absorbs radiation.
  • Final step asks students to compare what they found in their theoretical studies to a curve of a radiation curve measured by a satellite. This is a great way to assess the student's understanding of the processes.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Very detailed hand-outs and graphs are provided.
  • File sizes for the data are large; suggestion to download files ahead of time if planning to have students use the spreadsheet data. Note: the plots on the spreadsheets are not labeled with gas type.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

HS-ESS2.D1:The foundation for Earth’s global climate systems is the electromagnetic radiation from the sun, as well as its reflection, absorption, storage, and redistribution among the atmosphere, ocean, and land systems, and this energy’s re-radiation into space.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 1

Energy and Matter

HS-C5.3:Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems.

Science and Engineering Practices: 1

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

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.

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