Atmosphere: An Envelope of Gases

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SWBAT construct a poster to describe the atmosphere and explain how the Earth's systems interact in the atmosphere.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students research the atmosphere and create a poster to describe this system. Then, students will examine how the all of the Earth's spheres interact in the atmosphere.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will study each of Earth's major systems: biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. In addition, students will investigate how these systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth's materials and processes by conducting research, constructing graphs, creating models, carrying out scientific investigations, and analyzing real-world applications. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by showing a video on a high-altitude parachute jump. Students then explore the atmosphere by choosing a research question, reading to find the answer, and presenting their research to the class. Students create atmosphere posters to describe the atmosphere. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the atmosphere by examining how the Earth's systems interact.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):'

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Students obtain ideas by reading and comprehending an online text resource. At the end of the lesson, students communicate their findings orally to the rest of the class. 

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept:  

Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models 

Students study the atmosphere as one of Earth's major systems. They look at the atmosphere components and interactions during today's lesson. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS2.A:  Earth Materials and Systems

Earth’s major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth’s surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather. (5-ESS2-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be locating key information involving the atmosphere. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


15 minutes

Teacher Note

When planning this unit, I found that NGSS standard, 5-ESS2-1 was quite complex: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact. In past years, I would have taught an entire unit on just one of the spheres. 

Therefore, constructing lessons that would provide students with an in-depth understanding of all four systems within a single unit was the main objective. For this reason, I chose to use teacher anchor charts throughout the unit to immediately provide students with background knowledge on each of the spheres. This way, students could then build upon this knowledge base as they explored each sphere further (and deeper) on their own. The posters remained up throughout the unit so that students could continually refer to and apply their knowledge of the spheres when studying real-world applications later on. 

For today's lesson, we will create a classroom anchor chart to further explore the atmosphere. 

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can construct a poster to describe the atmosphere and explain how the Earth's systems interact in the atmosphere.

Referring to the Earth Systems Poster created at the beginning of this unit, I explain: So far, you have studied the biosphere (including biomes), geosphere (including Plate Tectonics and the rock cycle), and the hydrosphere (including the water cycle and the distribution of water reservoirs on Earth). Today, we are going to study the last major system on Earth, the atmosphere. 


To inspire students to begin thinking about the atmosphere, I show the following video clip until 8:30. I chose this clip in particular because it allows students to experience the Earth's atmosphere through the eyes of Colonel Joseph Kittinger's parachute jump from a high altitude in 1960. 

Before the video begins, I ask students to turn and talk: Why is the atmosphere important to Earth? Students refer to the Earth Systems Poster during their conversations. I hear some students explaining how the atmosphere protects humans from ultra violet rays. Others discuss how the atmosphere traps heat which supports life on Earth. Without discussing, I push play on the video so that students can hear the narrator explain why the Earth's atmosphere is so important (protects, insulates, sustains life on Earth, carries water around the globe, shields us from cosmic impacts and radiation).

I pause the video again at 0:54 and ask students to turn and talk: How many layers do you think there are in our atmosphere? Student answers vary from 2 layers to 7 layers. Again, I push play on the video and students soon learn that there are 5 distinct layers. 

I pause the video at 1:30 and ask students to turn and talk: How many miles do you think the atmosphere extends out from the Earth? Student responses include numbers between 100 miles and 1000 miles. I push play on the video. Students realize that the depth of our atmosphere is often dependent upon which scientist you talk to, "Some say it extends out 300 miles while others say it goes out to Mars."

Now that the students are engaged and actively listening, I just let the video play until 8:30! Students LOVE watching Kittinger's parachute jump. One student says, "I think his world record was recently broken." It turns out that this student is right! According to the Huffington Post, Felix Baumgartner broke Kittinger's record in 2102. 

Ultimately, this video turns out to be the perfect way to get students interested in studying the atmosphere!  


60 minutes

Explanation of Research Process

In order to develop a deeper understanding of the atmosphere, I will present ten research questions to students. Each student team will choose one question to research, using an online resource. Then, students will share out their research and ideas with the rest of the class as we complete a poster on the atmosphere: Completed Atmosphere Poster.


Prior to today's lesson, I project and sketch this Atmosphere Diagram on a large piece of bulletin board paper: Teacher Sketch of Atmosphere.

I also copy the Atmosphere Diagram for each student (blown up on a 11 x 17 paper to ensure students have ample space for note-taking). At the end of today's lesson, student posters will look like this: 


At this time, I invite students to move closer to the front board with their posters.

Developing Research Questions

To incorporate a student research component with this lesson, I read pages 312-324 of the following online resource and made a list of key research questions that each of the 10 student teams in our classroom could study. 

Presenting Questions

Today, you and your science team will be researching one of ten research questions that have to do with the atmosphere. While I write each question on the poster, one at a time (Atmosphere Questions), students also write the questions on their own posters (writing small enough that they can add research notes below each question later on). After each of the questions, I also write the page number of the online resource students will be using to study. For example, as indicated on the poster, the answer to question #1 can be found on page 312. 

Teacher Note: Please refer to the Reflection link, titled "Student Ownership: Guiding Student Research Questions" to see how I support students' abilities to drive the inquiry process at this time.

After all the questions have been written on the class posters as well as student posters, I ask students to turn and talk with their science teams: Which research questions are you most interested in studying today? Students begin discussing their favorite research questions with their group members. (I encourage students to come up with more than one question as their question might be chose by another group.) 

I randomly pull "glitter sticks" (colored popsicle sticks with glitter glue and student names) so that each team of students can choose which question is most interesting to them to research.

Google Email & Links to Resources

Each of my students has a google email account, so emailing the link to an online resource about the atmosphere is quick and easy! 

Getting Ready

I ask each group member on each team to silently show me which partner is a #1, #2, and #3 using their fingers. Students know that I expect them to do this quickly and without talking. Setting this expectation ahead of time saves instructional time. 

Today, partner #1 and partner #3 will be in charge of getting his/her computer and clicking on the appropriate research link to access an online resource on your group's chosen water cycle topic. The other student will look on with the other two students in order to read, discuss, share their thinking, and record notes. (By only getting two computers out per team, it encourages students to take part in a collaborative research process.)

Students eagerly get right to work as they are familiar with this sort of research process from past lessons. 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What patterns have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  8. How does this apply to your own life?

Student Conferences

During this conference, Student Conference about Air Pressure, the students and I discuss how the air pressure at the top of a mountain is less than the air pressure at sea level. This inspires a conversation about the weight of air. 

Here, Student Conference about Temperature, this team and I discuss how solar heat is absorbed by the Earth's surface and how this heat then warms the air lower down in the troposphere more than the air higher up in the troposphere. 

Completing the Atmosphere Poster

After about 20 minutes of student research time, we come back together to complete the class Atmosphere Poster and individual student posters as well. Again, I invite students to come up closer to the board with their posters so they can comfortably see the class poster. Some students sit on the carpet with a hard surface (white board) while others gather around nearby desks. 

Starting with Questions 1 & 2 (one at a time), the student teams that researched these questions provided key information for the rest of the students. Without my asking, all teams naturally made sure that each group member was able to share a fact on their research topic. One student that researched question #1 shared, "The atmosphere is a protective layer of gases." Another student adds on, "The air keeps our planet safe." The third student then shares, "The Earth would be extremely hot during the day and extremely cold at night without the atmosphere." Students are proud to see their research on the class poster and to see their peers taking notes on their research! 

For the next 40 minutes, we move on to discussing the research completed by other teams in the following order:

Once in a while, I would add on to a teams' notes. For example, when discussing the density and pressure of the atmosphere, I draw arrows to show that the pressure and density of the air decreases the further away from the Earth's surface: Labeling the Pressure and Density. I also draw a picture to help students visualize why the the temperature of air is cooler at the top of a mountain: Explaining the Aborption of the Sun's Rays.

In addition, due to constraints on time and poster space, students would often share more research than what we recorded on our posters.  

Teacher Note: While this poster seems like a lot of information for struggling learners, I try to maintain high expectations and standards for all students. At the same time, I also try to provide a high level of support. Sometimes I'll have different requirements for some students, such as halving the note taking requirements. Other times, I'll give these students more time for writing or I'll purposefully place the student next to another student so that they can refer to a peer's notes instead of the notes on the class poster. 

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to apply and share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to observe how the spheres interact in the atmosphere by looking at a picture.

Teacher Note: This activity supports NGSS standard, 5-ESS2-1: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact

Google Documents

Each of my students has a google email account, so sharing documents that can be edited by students is quick and easy! At this time, I share the document, Atmosphere & Spheres Response (in Google Documents). At this time, students grab their laptop computers and copy the document to make it their own editable version.

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student work during this time: 


To wrap up today's lesson and provide more time for students still finishing, students share their thinking on how the spheres interact in the atmosphere using their Atmosphere & Spheres Response pages.