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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The materials are free and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Unit 2: Earth's Atmosphere and Its Influence on Temperature

Allison Dunn (Worcester State University)
Bob MacKay (Clark College)
Philip Resor (Wesleyan University)

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


In this unit, students investigate radiation spectra and how it interacts with atmospheric greenhouse gases. Students analyze atmospheric CO2 data from Mauna Loa and learn about cause and effect relationships, specifically how societal choices drive changes to atmospheric conditions.

Science and Engineering Practices

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

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and/or reasoning behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments. HS-P7.2:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system. HS-C2.2:

Energy and Matter: Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system. HS-C5.2:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Weather and Climate: 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. HS-ESS2.D1:

Weather and Climate: Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate. HS-ESS2.D3:

Earth Materials and Systems: Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes. HS-ESS2.A1:

Performance Expectations

Earth and Human Activity: Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems. HS-ESS3-5:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Nov 18, 2016


This unit investigates the role of the atmosphere on incoming solar and outgoing terrestrial radiation and analyzes modern trends in greenhouse gas concentrations. Students first investigate radiation spectra to see how the atmosphere absorbs radiation in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. This information is used to develop the idea of greenhouse warming. Students then use the atmospheric CO2 dataset from Mauna Loa to investigate changes in atmospheric CO2 through time, and the drivers behind these changes. Follow-up questions ask students to consider how their own daily activities contribute to atmospheric CO2, and how rising CO2 may trigger potential feedbacks in the Earth system.

Learning Goals

By the end of the unit, students will be able to:

  1. Determine which wavelengths of incoming solar and outgoing terrestrial radiation are being absorbed by the atmosphere by examining radiation spectra.
  2. Describe how greenhouse gases elevate surface temperatures above the expected effective temperature.
  3. Analyze timeseries data of atmospheric CO2 to determine current growth rate and how the growth rate has changed since measurements began.
  4. Describe how changes in society have changed atmospheric CO2.
  5. Calculate individual contributions to anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Context for Use

This unit is designed for a 50-minute class period and incorporates both interactive lecture and activity components. It assumes that students have covered the material from Unit 1 and have completed the homework assignment from that unit. Question 5 from the Unit 1 homework asks the students to calculate the effective temperature of Earth, and their answers are used as the jumping-off point for this unit. After the class period, students have followup homework questions on the material.

If Unit 1 is not presented prior to this unit, students should be familiarized with the concepts of electromagnetic and blackbody radiation in order to prepare for the concepts in this unit.

Description and Teaching Materials

Unit 2 is split into two equal-length parts. The homework for Unit 1 includes having the students calculate Earth's effective temperature, so they should be prepared with this information prior to the start of class.

Part 1 (25 minutes) is a guided lecture and discussion of the role the atmosphere plays in altering the spectra of incoming (from the sun) and outgoing (from Earth) radiation. This is conducted with a PowerPoint containing relevant images. Three images are used as focal points for think-pair-share reflections, with guidance in the Notes section of the Unit 2 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.5MB Nov14 16).

  • What do we know about the Sun's outgoing radiation spectrum?
  • How does the energy received at Earth's surface differ from what we'd expect from an ideal blackbody?
  • How does Earth's outgoing radiation, viewed from space, differ from what is expected?

After investigation of these spectra, students will see how the greenhouse effect prevents energy from leaving the earth system, producing the observed surface temperature in excess of what they calculated (Earth's effective temperature, 255 K) for the beginning of class.

Part 2 (25 min) has students use real data regarding the changing concentration of CO2, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere.

In small groups in class, they investigate the following questions:

  • How has the growth rate of CO2in the atmosphere changed since measurements began in 1958?
  • What are the societal forces driving these changes in atmospheric CO2?
  • Why does atmospheric CO2have an annual "zig-zag" pattern?
These questions will be investigated in class, with supporting material in the Unit 2 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.5MB Nov14 16).

The questions in the homework (Unit 2: Homework (Word) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 132kB Nov14 16) or PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 152kB Nov14 16)) on the handout are designed to be completed at home and assessed later by the instructor. These questions have students predict future CO2 concentrations, calculate their carbon footprint, and make predictions regarding feedbacks in the Earth system.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The lead-in to this unit refers to a question posed as homework at the end of Unit 1, where students are asked to calculate Earth's effective temperature in K, °C, and °F. If Unit 2 is being used in stand-alone fashion, this opening section will need to be adjusted.

There are many pause points within the PowerPoint that are designed for students to think-pair-share. The instructor should allow the students a minute or two to discuss the question with a neighbor, then solicit responses from the class. This provides a way to promote interaction, even in larger classroom settings.

The instructor may recognize the concept sketch think-pair-share exercise from the student pre- and post-module survey Concept Sketch Pre and Post Survey (Word) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB Nov18 16) or PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 42kB Nov18 16) first mentioned in Unit 1. After discussing the sketch, it is worth asking students to reflect on how their knowledge of the system of Earth's energy balance has developed since the beginning of the module.

The CO2 data from Mauna Loa are continually updated; the instructor may wish to find the most current image at:

If the instructor is using the module in 75-minute class blocks, Part 1 of this unit can easily be appended to Unit 1. Then Part 2 of this unit can be used to lead in to the activities in Unit 3.


Assessment of learning goals:
  • Guided think-pair-share activities within PowerPoint assess learning goal 1
  • Guided think-pair-share activities in PowerPoint, including concept sketch, assess learning goal 2
  • In-class activity assesses learning goals 3 and 4
  • Homework assignment assesses learning goal 5
Student success and comprehension will be informally assessed during the guided discussions of Part 1 and the group analysis in Part 2.

Formal, individual assessment can be done through the homework questions.

  • /

Exam questions tied to the unit's learning goals can be found here:

  • /

Instructors may use the pre/post survey in class or as a take-home assessment tool:

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »