Layers of the Atmosphere

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SWBAT label the layers of the atmosphere and determine how temperature, pressure, and humidity change as a function of altitude (ESRT)

Big Idea

The layers of the atmosphere all have distinct properties and characteristics that allow their separation into distinguishable layers in Earth's atmosphere

Lesson Introduction

This is very much a lesson based off students' Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT], as the image on the layers of the atmosphere at the top of Page 14 is one in which some students have trouble deciphering, but one that is obviously important in thinking about the weather. Additionally, beyond just the names of the layers themselves, we also think about the relationships between temperature, humidity (water vapor concentration), and pressure as a function of elevation/altitude. 

[Note: For embedded comments, checks for understanding (CFUs), and key additional information on transitions and key parts of the lesson not necessarily included in the below narrative, please go to the comments in the following document: 5.5 - Layers of Atmosphere (Whole Lesson w/comments). Additionally, if you would like all of the resources together in a PDF document, that can be accessed as a complete resource here: 5.5 - Layers of Atmosphere (Whole Lesson)[PDF]. Finally, students may need their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] for parts of the lesson (a document used widely in the New York State Earth Science Regents course) as well.]

Do Now & Objective(s)

10 minutes

Students come in silently and complete the (attached) Do Now. In this case, the Do Now is a review of material from earlier in the unit, notably temperature conversions and calculating RH/dew point. After time expires (anywhere from 2-4 minutes depending on the type of Do Now and number of questions), we collectively go over the responses (usually involving a series of cold calls and/or volunteers), before I call on a student and ask them to read the objective out loud to start the lesson.

As a general note, the Do Now serves a few purposes:

  1. It serves as a general review of the previous day's material; (again, this is a bit different, as they are reviewing for the quarterly Interim Assessment)
  2. It is a re-activation of student knowledge to get them back into "student mode" and get them thinking about science after transitioning from another content area or alternate class;
  3. as a strategy for reviewing material students have struggled with (for example, using this as a focused review for material that they have struggled with on unit assessments or recent quizzes); and,
  4. It is an efficient and established routine for entering the classroom that is repeated each day with fidelity (I never let students enter the classroom talking. While it may seem potentially severe to have students enter silently each day, this is both a school wide expectation and a key component of my classroom. In many respects, I find that students readily enjoy the focus that starting with a quiet classrooms brings each day).

Layers of Atmosphere Construction

10 minutes

After the Do Now, I want to give students the chance to construct the layers of the atmosphere absent any real prior knowledge. This is very much an exercise in them creating a working model of the atmosphere that they will edit as the lesson progresses - this is just the initial draft, which they're constructing based upon the data table available in the Layers of Atmosphere Diagram resource. 

I ask them to work with a partner (their seat mate) to estimate and then illustrate the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. I indicate that the layers as they appear in the data table may not be in the correct order (they aren't), and that they need to organize the layers based on the information, and draw approximate thicknesses based upon the relative widths in the table. As an additional step, I pass out colored pencils to each group (I pre-bundle them in packs of 3-5 so they're easy to pass out) and ask students to very lightly shade in each layer once they're confident in their initial predictions based on the data table. 

As a check to this information, I ask students to consult Page 14 of their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT], where they have a diagram that outlines information pertaining to the atmospheric layers. That serves as the transition point to the mini-lesson below, which revolves around teaching students how to appropriately interpret information in the diagram. 


20 minutes

After the atmospheric layer construction, the entire class has subtly different illustrations of the atmosphere and each of its layers. Pointing them to Page 14 of their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] serves as a natural transition point into the Mini-Lesson and an opportunity for them to make any initial edits to their own created atmospheric diagrams. 

The first page of the Mini-Lesson has a very brief text explaining the layer and importance of each atmospheric layer. I ask students to annotate their created atmospheric images with some of this information (Note: please refer to embedded comments in the Word document for specifics), but as an example, I ask them to label the troposphere as the layer where weather occurs, and the stratosphere as the layer containing atmospheric ozone (something they'll learn about in the future).

I then point them back to the diagram in their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT], where we start to examine the relationships between altitude/elevation and some of the listed variables: temperature, pressure, and water vapor (humidity). The following pages are questions that we approach in a teacher/student-led way (depending on the class and how they're progressing). For example, on the second page of the Mini-Lesson, I mostly lead Example 1, which asks to determine the altitude of the stratosphere. I go through the steps of the process at the ELMO, modeling each of the step until I solve it. For Example 2, I ask them to take a minute to work together to find the temperature range of the mesosphere, and I then ask them to do the same thing for Example 3 and Example 4 independently. 

After that, we circle back together as a class, review the answers (I'll often model the process again, or ask a student to come up and do the same at the ELMO) and then try to extrapolate some of the relationships in sentences (i.e. "There is an inverse relationship between altitude and atmospheric pressure"). I then give them a final check for understanding, Regents-based question, which is tagged as Example 6. Based on the stated relationships we drew out in Example 5, students should be able to identify these relationships graphically as well (although the temperature-altitude relationship is a bit trickier for them). 


15 minutes

The Practice section in this lesson is, unlike the vast majority of questions found in all of my classwork and homework, is not 100% Regents-based. In this context of being layers of the atmosphere, it is often difficult to find Regents questions probing about specific content via atmospheric layers. Frankly, many of the questions I uncovered only had atmospheric layers as a supplementary part to a larger question - in effect, much of this is important, but contextually in regards to a lot of Regents-based work students will find. While there are a few Regents-based problems here, I really wanted to emphasize questions applying their newfound knowledge, and not so much extraneous or supplementary information. I need to know if they know how to utilize the information in their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] in only a single period, so I'm trying to isolate just that information insofar as this lesson is concerned. 

In terms of student work habits, I tend to sometimes make this decision in the moment, and as a response of what I know about the students and how they're processing the material on, but I'll either ask them to work independently, in partners, or (sometimes) give them the option. Usually, before starting practice, we tend to go over some steps for self-help ("What should you do if you're stuck?"), and I might reference a previously used multiple-choice or free response strategy in order to build their skills while simultaneously learning content (as an example - one popular one we always use - "If you aren't sure what the right answer is, see if you can eliminate some wrong answer choices"). I tend to circulate (by circulate, I mean taking a quick lap to make sure everyone has started, and then focus in on kiddos who need some academic support) for compliance and then hone in on specific students while they're doing this. 

After about 10 minutes, we go over their responses. You can see a video of us doing that here: Clip - Going over Practice.  Students who finish early are encouraged to work on the exit ticket (resource below) and double-check their responses. We use a combination of strategies (active voting, cold calling, popsicle sticks, volunteers) to go over the responses, where students correct their work and ask any clarifying questions. 

Exit Ticket & Closing

5 minutes

In the last few minutes of class, I have students complete the daily Exit Ticket. For the sake of time, I have students grade them communally, with a key emphasis on particular questions and items that hit on the key ideas of the lesson (Note: This usually manifests as students self-grading, or having students do a "trade and grade" with their table partners). After students grade their exit tickets, they usually pass them in (so that I can analyze them) and track their exit ticket scores on a unit Exit Ticket Tracker. 

After students take a few seconds to track their scores, we usually wrap up in a similar way. I give students time to pack up their belongings, and I end the class at the objective, which is posted on the whiteboard, and ask students two questions:

  1. Do you feel that you mastered the objective for the day?
  2. Can you reiterate one thing you learned about (in this case, information on where the vertical ray falls on the respective Equinoxes/Solstices, etc.)?

Once I take 2-3 individual responses (sometimes I'll ask for a binary "thumbs up/thumbs down" or something similar), I have students leave once the bell rings [Note: You can see a video of me going over the exit ticket and having students track their scores, as well as the general last two minutes of class below.]