Clouds in a Bottle: A versatile way to explore gas laws and phase changes

Tuesday 3:00pm-3:20pm Weeks Geo: 140
Teaching Demo


Todd Ellis, Western Michigan University


I will demonstrate the use of the different apparatus, discuss strategies for using the front-of-class demonstration to facilitate student interaction with data (rather than just letting students watch the demo passively). I will also share possible extension activity ideas (such as programming/excel work or other data sources related to these concepts like upper atmosphere soundings and satellite data)


In this activity, designed for introductory level undergraduates, but adaptable for K-16 learners, we explore fundamental ideas about the Ideal Gas Law as it applies to the atmosphere, and specifically to the formation of clouds in the atmosphere. The activity features apparatus that can be used in small groups for observe, explain, predict, explain activities, computer based equipment that allow for quantitative analysis and graphing.

Upon successful completion of this activity, learners should be able to:

  • Breakdown the ideal gas law equation into its component variables and explain the relationships between those variables when one is held constant
  • Construct a graph of temperature vs. pressure for a handheld cloud chamber, and explain the relationships observed
  • Create a model for how clouds form in the atmosphere, including the roles of cloud condensation nuclei, temperature changes, and the role of water vapor


The target audience is an introductory level course with a population of non-science degree seeking students. This demonstration works best for a smaller laboratory or recitation setting. It is used during a unit on clouds, after clouds have been introduced and cloud identification has been covered. This part of the lesson is meant to allow students to both quantitatively and qualitatively study how clouds form and to allow them to construct knowledge using small group experiences and large group discussion.

Why It Works

It involves active learning in small groups, and involves lots of sensory input (popping sounds, lit matches, computer based apparatus and inexpensive hand held demonstrations). It also provides practice with data analysis skills and in understanding experimental setup.