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Catching a Heat Wave

Lunar and Planetary Institute, Universities Space Research Association

Students model the effect of greenhouse gases on Earth's atmosphere. They find that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are uniquely shaped to catch and pass on infrared radiation, and so they are responsible for the warmth we enjoy on Earth. The children discuss how the addition of greenhouse gases by human activities leads to further warming and what steps we can take to slow it.

This activity takes approximately one 45 minute class period. Additional materials are required.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

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

  • Instructors should consider adding students (without any "catching" device) to represent the Earth's surface so that students don't develop the misconception that the infrared radiation only bounces around in the atmosphere. Another option would be bouncing balls off the ground as students pass balls to each other to indicate energy bouncing off the earth.
  • Instructors should also consider adding students, and an associated "catching" device, to represent water vapor present in the atmosphere, as water vapor is a large greenhouse gas contributor.
  • Consider supplementing the actions recommended within this activity with stronger climate action steps. According to scientists and policymakers, the world needs to make rapid, substantial progress toward burning much less fossil fuels, and we need to do this right away. By 2030, emissions would need to be 25%-55% lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2°C and 1.5°C respectively. Students, educators, and communities should be aware of how large a change is needed. Carpooling is an excellent first step, but it needs to be emphasized that small individual actions are not enough to bring about the scale of fossil fuel reduction that’s needed. See Emissions Gap Report 2019 and UN Report to cut global emissions for more information.
  • Consider using the Drawdown framework or other similar guidelines to develop a project-based learning opportunity with students. As a class or in small groups, students can engage in action planning to contribute to sustainability goals (eg. Meatless Mondays).
  • May work well with On the Rise activity.

About the Content

  • Students model the effect of greenhouse gases on Earth's atmosphere.
  • There is a possible misconception that all the infrared radiation bounces back and forth in our atmosphere. Some gets bounced back down to the earth as well.
  • The activity does not include water vapor, which is Earth's most abundant greenhouse gas. Interestingly, as more carbon-dioxide molecules are added, the atmosphere warms up, which then in turn creates even more water vapor, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • One of the questions in the activity asks students what would happen if we didn't have carbon dioxide and methane, and the answer listed is that all of the infrared radiation would go out to space, which isn't entirely true, as the water vapor would catch some of the radiation. This also could lead to the misconception that having high levels of carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere is good.
  • There is also a possible misconception regarding the composition of Earth's atmosphere. Proportions in this activity are half inert gases and half greenhouse gases. In actuality, a significant majority of the atmosphere is composed of oxygen and nitrogen.
  • Passed initial science review - expert science review pending.

About the Pedagogy

  • This is a physically-active and fun activity, and it will be especially engaging for kinesthetic and social learners to learn about greenhouse gases. This activity helps students visualize what is causing climate change.
  • As a class, students model the effect of greenhouse gases on Earth's surface. Students use the model to explain what would happen if more greenhouse gases are added, or what would happen if we had no greenhouse gases.
  • Effective discussion and reflection questions are provided to help students make meaning out of what they are observing in the model.
  • The activity does not really engage students in the scientific process, though an instructor could draw more emphasis to the use of a "model" to be able to make predictions, and could ask students to "test their model" when they are asked what would happen if more carbon dioxide molecules were added to the system.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • There is extensive background information provided for the teacher and facilitator's notes throughout the lesson.
  • Depending on group size, age of students, and experience of the teacher, a potential challenge might be classroom management given the use of unusual supplies (softballs, oven mitts, embroidery hoops, etc.).
  • The activity may work better in small groups rather than a full class. This might help keep the discussions more focused as well.
  • Resource is easy to use and understand. Materials will be easy to find other than the embroidery hoops, but an instructor may be able to find something to substitute. Any open hoop would work.
  • Discussion and reflective questions are included to check for understanding, but no individual assessment is provided.

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN

Check out flash cards on Greenhouse Gases.
Entered the Collection: August 2020 Last Reviewed: June 2020

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