Can You Track The Sun's Energy?

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Students will be able to track energy that circulates through earth’s systems.

Big Idea

Students use models to track the Sun's energy can take as it leaves the sun and travels through Earth's systems. Students explore with different types of surfaces, globes, flashlights, and an interactive model of the Greenhouse Effect!

Introduction and Connection to the NGSS and Common Core

This lesson connects to the following NGSS and Common Core Standards:

MS-ESS2-6  Develop and use a model to describe how unequal heating and rotation of the Earth cause patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation that determine regional climates.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.4  Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.

Science and Engineering Practices:

Developing and Using Models  Develop and/or use a model to generate data to test ideas about phenomena in natural or designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs, and those at unobservable scales. 

Crosscutting Concepts:

Energy and Matter  

Flows, Cycles, and Conservation: Tracking energy and matter flows, into, out of, and within systems helps one understand their system’s behavior.

  • Matter is conserved because atoms are conserved in physical and chemical processes.
  • Within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter.
  • Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion).
  • The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system. 

Connecting to the Essential Question: What are you supposed to learn today?

5 minutes

As this is the first lesson of the unit, I begin with introducing the Essential Question for the unit and breaking down the vocabulary in the question. I ask the students to turn to their Literacy Unit Plan and read the Essential Question, "How does the energy and matter that circulate earth’s systems impact weather and climate?" 

First, ask students to explain what they think of when they read "energy and matter". My students have completed a unit on energy and one on matter and thus have lots of ideas they can share. Some things students share are, "There are lots of types of energy", "Energy and matter are conserved.", "Energy transfers", and "Matter makes up everything."  

Next, we talk about what "circulate" means. Students often say things like "moves" or "cycles". I then stop and paraphrase what we have broken down thus far by saying, "Ok, so we are trying to see how these different types of energy that can transfer and the matter that makes up everything moves or cycles." 

I then ask what they think it means by "earth's systems".  Students often start by saying "a system is something that has parts that work together".  Sometimes, I have to follow up with a prompting question, "What are the things on Earth that work together to make up the entire planet?".  Students often say things like "water", "land", "air", and "us". I make sure students can attach these words to the hydrosphere, geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. I then say, "The next key words I see are weather and climate. I'm confused....aren't weather and climate the same thing?  Why would both of those words be there?"  

Students then correct my by explaining that weather is what is occurring right now while climate are the weather patterns that happen year after year. After students offer this definition, I can clarify or verbalize any vocabulary or description in the definition that the student inaccurately shared. Last, I ask the students which of the systems we brainstormed might we be able to track energy and matter through that is related to weather and climate. Students often offer the atmosphere and hydrosphere.  

Then, I have students rank themselves on each of the skills included in the unit plan. Students rank themselves on a scale of 1 to 4 (4 being mastery). Students will continue to update these scores over the course of the unit.  I emphasize to them that it is ok not to be at a "4". Learning is about growth! We will use this starting point to track the growth in their learning.

Notice in the student work below, that the student updates his scores over the course of the unit as he grows in his level of mastery.

Mini Lesson: Tracking Energy Through Earth's Systems

25 minutes

Provide students with the W.1 Notes Sheet and ask students to get out their NGSS Crosscutting Concepts Document. (My class has worked the entire year using the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts.  If you haven't done this, you could use this document to help you!)

I emphasize that today's focus is Skill 1, "I can track energy and matter that circulates through earth’s systems" and that it is rooted in the Crosscutting Concept "Energy and Matter".  

I have students read the first section of the notes page as a table and try to make as many connections as they can to the CCC Energy and Matter that they can. I emphasize that they should try to find connections to each of the "bullet points" included in their NGSS Crosscutting Concepts Document. Then, provide each table with time to share with each other the connections they made.  

Here students connect to the idea that matter is conserved during nuclear fusion and that there are many types of waves and energy produced from the sun. These tie directly to the NGSS Crosscutting Concept Energy and Matter. The students are pointing to the bullet points from their resource document that says:

  • Matter is conserved because atoms are conserved in physical and chemical processes.
  • Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion).

  • The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system. 

  • Within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter.

As a whole class, call on table groups to share the connections they made to each of the "bullet points" for Energy and Matter.  Then, emphasize the key idea that the sun produces a tremendous amount of different kinds of energy and that the transfer of that energy drives earth's systems.  Moreover, this energy is conserved!  The energy created in the sun is merely transferred and distributed in many ways throughout earth.


**This lesson is key for students to connect to the Essential Question. Moreover, it can prime students' brains for what this unit will hold for them. Getting them in the mindset of the focus of the unit will improve their understanding!  Without beginning this unit with the idea that energy drives the cycling and motion of matter on earth, students can miss the big picture. In the past, I have taught about weather elements and students leave the unit knowing about air pressure, temperature, winds, etc., but they miss the big picture of how the energy and matter cycling through the earth really drives these processes. Set the tone from the beginning of your weather unit so that students continue to connect back to the big idea!

Models Rotation: Tracking Paths of Energy

45 minutes

Explain that scientists use models to describe and make predictions about real world phenomena and that they are going to create models to demonstrate their understanding of the rest of the notes page.

Model #1:  Energy Takes Different Paths

I created a "model" that can be used to represent how light can take different paths as it travels to the earth. When I envisioned this, I pictured this amazing model that was a glorious representation of the earth that included different types of surfaces - surfaces that reflect light, absorb light, use light for reactions, etc. When I put it together, it ended up looking a little bit more like an elementary school student's diorama. When I introduce this to my students, I take a moment to poke a little fun at myself and we have a good laugh. I then emphasize that the purpose of the model can still be served even if the model looks "crafty".


  1. Read the bottom section of the front of your W.1 notes page that states, “Only a small percentage…” and “Color”.
  2. Determine a way that you could use the flashlight and box diorama to model the different paths light may take as it travels from the sun to the Earth’s surface.


At this station, students should note that light can take many different paths as it travels from the sun through earth's systems.  In addition, they should recognize that the different types of surfaces on earth can cause the energy to take different paths as well. 

The student above notes that, "the radiant energy could bounce back off the atmosphere and back into space".  This is an important realization that many do not make. Even in the model, students can't "see" the atmosphere and therefore often forget to include it. In terms of this student's work, I would have liked her to go into more detail about how the energy could be "absorbed by different surfaces". (For example, absorbed by blacktop vs. reflected off of water.)

Model #2:  The Uneven Heating of the Earth's Surface


  1.  Read the top of the back of your W.1 Notes page.  Just read the section titled “The Uneven Heating of the Earth’s Surface”.  Do not read “The Greenhouse Effect” yet.
  2. Use the materials provided to create a model that shows how the energy from the sun is distributed as it hits the Earth. (Materials:  Globes and Flashlights)

At this station, students note that the angle of the sun's rays can impact temperature. Students should recognize that the sun's rays hit more directly at the equator and indirectly at the poles. In addition, students should recognize that the tilt of the earth's axis causes the sun's rays to be more direct in the winter than in the summer. As you can see from the student work above, many students tend to focus on one of these examples. Emphasize to your students that they are looking for two examples!


 Model #3:  The Greenhouse Effect


  1.  Read the bottom section of the back of your W.1 notes sheet titled “The Greenhouse Effect”.
  2. Go to High Adventure Science, from the Concord Consortium. 
  3. The simulator on this website can serve as a model of the Greenhouse effect.  Volcanic eruptions release CO2 into the air.  The green dots represent CO2.  The red dots represent heat energy.  The yellow dots represent the sun’s rays.
  4. Press play on the simulator.  Watch the graphs of the temperature and the CO2.
  5. Press the “erupt” button a few times and note the change in carbon dioxide and temperature both in the model and in the graphs.
  6. Press “Follow Energy Packet” to follow the path that the energy can take.  Press “Stop Following”.
  7. Repeat step 5 to see a different path the energy could take.
  8. Repeat step 5 to see a different path the energy could take.
  9. Click the “Remove CO2” button.  Watch the changes in the model and the graphs.  Click the “Remove CO2” button a few more times.  Again, watch the changes in the model and graphs.
At this station, the students have to identify different paths that energy can take as it travels from the Sun to Earth.

This student identifies that the light could be reflected off the ground, absorbed by the ground, absorbed then radiated back out, or absorbed/radiated/trapped by carbon dioxide.  In addition, students draw their final graphs that were created in their online models. After analyzing those graphs, the student above notes that an increase in carbon dioxide results in an increase in temperature.

Modeling Discussions

15 minutes

For the following discussion questions, I encourage to utilize the effective discussion techniques that we have used all year in their discussions.  Some of the main aspects of discussion that I encourage them to use are:

-  Connect  (Connect to one of the models.)

-  Summarize  (Summarize/Paraphrase each others ideas.)

-  Cite (Cite text as evidence.)

-  Real World  (Relate to a real world example.)

For each of the discussion questions, I have included a video of my students discussing.  I find that as a teacher, it is helpful to have an idea of what my students are going to say so that I know which follow up/prompting questions I might need to ask as students work.  The clips below can give you that insight!

Skill W.1 Modeling Lab:  Discussion Questions

1.  How does the Sun create uneven heating of the Earth’s surface?

2.  If you were going to track radiant energy from the sun moving towards the Earth’s surface, what are some paths that the light waves may take?

3.  Analyze your graphs from the Interactive Model.  How can the data you collected provide evidence of the greenhouse effect?

4.  We saw the temperature rise as the volcano erupted and produced carbon dioxide.  Does carbon dioxide produce heat?


After completing the greenhouse effect model, many middle school students follow this train of thought:

  • When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature increases.
  • Therefore, anytime the temperature increases, there is more carbon dioxide.

Discussion questions #5 and #6 address these misconceptions.  While the students in the videos recognize that this is not true, you will have students that follow this train of thought and misinterpret that the greenhouse effect is the cause of all high temperatures.


5.  Susie was at the beach.  The sand was so hot it was burning her feet.  She said, “That must mean there is a lot of carbon dioxide in the air.  The greenhouse effect is increasing the temperature.”  Fact or misconception?

6.  Analyze the graphs comparing the average temperatures in Florida compared to Michigan.  Does this mean that the greenhouse effect is greater in Florida than in Michigan?

Closure: Formative Assessment

5 minutes

Provide the students with the following formative assessment. I sort these slips into stacks of similar learners and meet with conference groups in a future lesson.

When I meet with conference groups, there are a few specific groups of learners that tend to arise when answering the question, "Draw a diagram that tracks energy through the greenhouse effect."  These are groups of students that I might conference with:

1.  Students that do not draw arrows showing the paths the energy is taking. The question asks students to "track" the energy. Some students do not draw the paths that the energy might take and instead might simply write, "Carbon dioxide traps heat.".

2.  Students that do not mention greenhouse gases/carbon dioxide as gases that are specifically trapping the heat. Many students will draw the process very well due to the online model they completed. However, I always get a group of students that forgets to include carbon dioxide in their explanation.

When I meet with conference groups, students plot their score on their "Working Towards Mastery" list and write the feedback that I give them at the bottom. This is a really important tool for students in their journey towards mastery  Students know exactly where they stand with each skill and have a detailed account of their unique, specific feedback!