1. Up, Up and Away! Exploring the Layers of the Atmosphere

82 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT distinguish the layers of the atmosphere and develop an understanding of where weather takes place.

Big Idea

Students will create a model of the layers of the atmosphere, plot the altitude of each layer on a graph, and write and/or draw features of each layer on this graph.

Lesson Overview

5E lesson plan model

Many of my science lessons are based upon and taught using the 5E lesson plan model: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. This lesson plan model allows me to incorporate a variety of learning opportunities and strategies for students.  With multiple learning experiences, students can gain new ideas, demonstrate thinking, draw conclusions, develop critical thinking skills, and interact with peers through discussions and hands-on activities.  With each stage in this lesson model, I select strategies that will serve students best for the concepts and content being delivered to them.  These strategies were selected for this lesson to facilitate peer discussions, participation in a group activity, reflective learning practices, and accountability for learning.

Lesson Synopsis

The Up, Up and Away! Exploring the Layers of the Atmosphere lesson provides students opportunity to discover the layers of the atmosphere by creating a model to represent each layer, formulating distinction between the five layers, and determining the layer in which weather systems occur. Students compare the different layers by graphing the altitudes and temperatures of each to validate weather happening in the troposphere. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to describe the five layers of Earth’s atmosphere and define how altitude varies from layer to layer of atmosphere.

Why do I begin with this lesson?

Many of students have limited science background as they have not had formal science instruction prior to entering middle school; therefore I incorporate directed inquiry tasks within many parts of this unit. In the lesson on the layers of the atmosphere students are provided specific tasks and materials to create some background knowledge that is needed throughout other lessons within this unit. By providing them with a foundation, students are set up for success in future lessons. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson address the NGSS Standard(s): 

5-ESS-2 Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.

In this lesson, students develop an understanding of the relationship between the atmosphere and hydrosphere.  By understanding this relationship, students will recognize the components and interactions between them that cause weather systems to occur and change in certain areas.

Scientific & Engineering Practices

Students are engaged in the following scientific and engineering Practices.

2. Developing and Using Models: Students create a model to represent the layers of the Earth’s atmosphere to differentiate altitude and depth between each layer. This model is used to generate students analytic skills to make connections to their personal lives, and further develop their understanding about the layers of the atmosphere's affect on weather.

5.  Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking:  Students plot the altitude of the layers of the atmosphere to use to analyze and compare the depth between each layer.  They will organize man-made and natural objects that exist in each layer.

8.  Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information:  Using student created atmosphere models, National Geographic video, and illustration on the overhead, students obtain reasons for weather occurring in the troposphere and communicate explanations in their interactive notebook.

 Crosscutting Concepts

Layers of the Earth’s atmosphere will correlate to other interdisciplinary areas.  These Crosscutting Concepts include

4. Systems and Models: Students construct a model of the layers of the atmosphere to develop an understanding how each layer contributes parts of a weather system. 

7. Stability and Change:  Students learn that changes in one layer of the atmosphere impact the stability of systems in another layer.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Disciplinary Core Ideas within this lesson include:

ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems: This lesson introduces the interactions between the atmosphere and hydrosphere  


Classroom Management

Modeling to Develop Student Responsibility, Accountability, and Independence 

Depending upon the time of year, this lesson is taught, teachers should consider modeling how groups should work together; establish group norms for activities, class discussions, and partner talks.  In addition, it is important to model think aloud strategies.  This will set up students to be more expressive and develop thinking skills during the activity.  The first half of the year, I model what group work and/or talks “look like and sound like.”  I intervene the moment students are off task with reminders and redirecting.  By the second and last half of the year, I am able to ask students, “Who can give of three reminders for group activities to be successful?” Who can tell us two reminders for partner talks?”  Students take responsibility for becoming successful learners.  Again before teaching this lesson, consider the time of year, it may be necessary to do a lot of front loading to get students to eventually become more independent and transition through the lessons in a timely manner.


For time management purposes, I use “lab rats roles” I introduce these roles this at the beginning of the year. I model each role and provide students' opportunities to practice each role with a group during an investigation or lab.  It has proven successful within my classroom keeping students engaged and on task.

Each student has a number on the back of his or her chair, 1,2,3,4 (students sit in groups of 4)and displayed on the board.  For each explore activity, I switch up the roles randomly so students are experiencing different task responsibilities which include:  Director, Materials Manager, Reporter, and Technician.  It makes for smooth transitions and efficiency for set up, work, and clean-up. 


10 minutes

To start, I pose the following question to my students, "what makes weather and what causes it to change?" I tell them I am not looking for an answer right now, but I want them to keep that question in their mind as we begin investigating weather. I continue by explaining to them our overall goal is to develop an understanding of why weather changes and how it determines the climate of an area.

After explaining to students that the atmosphere is made up of many different layers, I inform the students they are doing a card sort activity to identify the five main layers of the atmosphere to determine what they know, sort of know, and don't know about the Earth's atmosphere. I selected this activity because it is an effective visual for students to access and display their prior knowledge and a quick visual insight of students previous knowledge on the atmosphere.

I hand out a layers of the atmosphere matrix and a bag filled with atmosphere descriptors cards and direct students to take out all of the cards, placing them face up. Then, I ask them to arrange the cards under the layer of the atmosphere they believe the descriptive card belongs too. As I walk around, I notice most students made connections with the pictures in the matrix and key words/ phrases on the atmosphere descriptors to decide on cards placement.

I direct the students to their elbow partner to turn and talk about the arrangement they made and reasons for it.  Having students discuss in small groups or pairs provides them the opportunity to develop their own thinking by sharing and justifying their ideas and listening to others. During this time, I am walking around listening to conversations. I overhear a student noting he has similar characteristics as his partner about the troposphere. I move on to a whole class share and use the quick pick bucket to select students to share aloud the arrangement he or she discussed with his or her partner. 

After students share, I tell the students they will be using the information during the card sort activity to learn about the layers of Earth's atmosphere. 


20 minutes

I direct students to take their interactive notebook from the center of their group tables as we are using them during this portion of the lesson and to be ready for their lab rats roles. Then, to set the goal of our task, I ask a student to read the standards board aloud:

"Today we will identify five layers of the atmosphere by creating a model of the atmosphere layers to determine where weather occurs and where it does not. We will be plotting each layer based on different heights to represent the data and features within our model."

Here we open our interactive notebook and on the right side we write: Layers of the Atmosphere- (input), and I instruct students to paste the layers of the atmosphere task card which is in then the center of the table on the title. Students refer to their lab rats roles to complete the task card.  The director checks in with their group by asking if everyone understands the task.  He or she then instructs the material manager to retrieve the supplies tray to complete the task.  

Once groups are set up, I remind the technician they are monitoring the gravel measurements checking for accuracy of each one.  While groups begin following the task card directions and creating a model using their layers of the atmosphere bottle labelI am walking around the room, monitoring groups, making sure everyone is on task. I also stop in and listen to discussions and take note of some responses, "I notice there is a lot of layers on top of the troposphere and that's where we live, yikes!" "I wonder why only weather happens there."  "It must take a wicked long time to get to space." 

After creating their model, I observe students using the layers of the earth's atmosphere reference sheet along with their model, to engage in discussion to answer the task card questions in the output portion of their notebook.  



15 minutes

At the end of our explore activity, I ask students lab rats reporter to be ready to share to the class their group discussion.  Using the quick pick bucket and select a group to begin sharing. The selected group's reporter comes to the document camera and shares their response to one question from their interactive notebook.  We continue until each question is answered and reporter has shared. 

I direct students attention back to the board where the layers of the atmosphere are written and inform students they are going to view the “Origins of the Atmosphere” from National Geographic channel.  I selected this video clip because it presents information about each layer of the atmosphere, makes connections to weather, and engages students as it incorporates realistic actions and ideas such as clouds, space, and even skydiving all set to music.  While the video is playing, I am observing students reactions.  I noticed many astonished faces and remarks such as "cool" and "awesome," at the skydiving scene.   

Following the video, I place the chart Sun's Energy on Earth's Atmosphere on the projector and ask students take a minute to themselves and analyze each layer in relation to the sun.

I selected this chart to use as part of our explanation discussion because it visually illustrates the role of the sun upon each layer and students can further develop their understanding on the varying temperatures within each layer of the atmosphere.

Then I ask students to turn and talk using our turn and talk norms with their elbow partner on their analysis.  As students converse, I walk around the room monitoring discussions.  I am listening for conversations about how much of the sun's energy is being reflected and absorbed on the Earth. I use the quick pick bucket and I call on 3-4 students to share aloud and enter into a discussion as a whole class. I add the question: Explain how the Earth's surface stays warm and ask for volunteers to respond. Then, I present the question “what would happen if gases did not absorb the sun’s energy?"

I restate the question from the beginning of the class, what makes weather and causes it to change? and ask the students to continue thinking about the chart and how the Sun relates to weather.  I tell them to keep this in mind as we continue to investigate the layers of the Earth's atmosphere.


15 minutes

After our class discussion, I pose to my students,  "Imagine being asked by NASA to take a trip to space. How do you think the atmosphere changes as you pass through it to reach outer space?" I present this question to get them to think back to the layers of the atmosphere model and applying it to a real world idea, such as travelling to space. 

I direct them to the front of the board, where the vertical profile atmosphere graph is displayed through the projector.  

This graph is used to as a reference for students as they create their own model about using data about each layer. I tell the students, they are using math skills and science knowledge about the atmosphere to identify the altitudes of the layers of the Earth's atmosphere. I define altitude on the board: the vertical (upright) distance or height from the Earth's surface; and justify that the vertical profile atmosphere graph represents this vertical height.

Students work on identifying the heights on the graph using their model from earlier in the lesson to locate each altitude level numerically. After label the heights and noting the distances between each layer, I instruct students to use the atmosphere descriptors from the card sort activity to write/label or draw these features on the graph. I walk around monitoring students work and randomly check in with students asking them to justify why they drew items in certain layers on their graph and have them explain to me which layer.

After completing their vertical profile atmosphere diagram, I assign my students questions to check for understanding, these responses are written their interactive notebook. After responding, they analyze their graph and write a summary based on these questions.

I collect students graph analysis answers to determine how well they summarized their learning. Their responses indicate their understanding that weather occurs in the troposphere layer of the atmosphere. They have made the connection that heat energy from the sun contributes to the varying temperatures within each layer. In addition, they infer that land and water absorbs heat energy but at varying amounts, causing changes in the air to take place creating weather in some form.  

I come back to the question I asked prior to the graphing activity, "Imagine being asked by NASA to take a trip to space." "How do you think the atmosphere changes as you pass through it to reach outer space?" and direct student to write their response in their quick write notebook.  I use this response to determine if students have applied their understanding of the layers of the atmosphere lesson.