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Hands-on Activity: It's Really Heating Up in Here!

Quick Look

Grade Level: 6 (5-6)

Time Required: 1 hour

Expendable Cost/Group: US $3.50

Group Size: 4

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Earth and Space, Physical Science, Science and Technology


Student teams model the Earth's greenhouse effect using modeling clay, ice chunks, water, aluminum pie tins and plastic wrap. They observe and record what happens in this closed environment and discuss the implications of global warming theory for engineers, themselves and the Earth.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

A "Stop Global Warming" sign spelled out by small penguins.
Students examine the impacts of global warming
Copyright © 2011 Frits Ahlefeldt, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stop-Global-warming_spelled_by_small_penguins.jpg

Engineering Connection

Global warming is becoming an increasing concern as we learn more about the weather disasters and environmental effects that may result. Some engineers are designing new technologies to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. Other engineers are designing technologies to help warn people of impending disasters. This includes remote sensing instruments in satellites, oceans and the Earth that gather data used predict the presence and magnitude of tropical storms, earthquakes, and weather extremes such as droughts and flooding.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Build a simple model to recreate the greenhouse effect.
  • Record observations of global warming during experiments.
  • Compare their model environment with their environment.
  • Describe how global warming may impact an engineer's decisions, their own lives and the Earth.
  • Discuss their roles as citizens in the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Ask questions to identify and clarify evidence of an argument.

Alignment agreement:

Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.

Alignment agreement:

Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.

Alignment agreement:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the effects of technology on the environment. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Interpret and analyze data about changes in environmental conditions – such as climate change – and populations that support a claim describing why a specific population might be increasing or decreasing (Grade 6) More Details

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  • Model equilibrium in an ecosystem, including basic inputs and outputs, to predict how a change to that ecosystem such as climate change might impact the organisms, populations, and species within it such as the removal of a top predator or introduction of a new species (Grade 6) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

  • 1 box modeling clay
  • 1 medium-sized, deep, aluminum tin (such as an aluminum pie tin)
  • 1 box plastic wrap
  • 1 6-8 oz. paper cup, filled with water and frozen
  • water
  • The Greenhouse Effect Reading (1 per group or 1 for the teacher to read aloud)

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_air_lesson07_activity2] to print or download.

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The "greenhouse effect" is so called because it is the same process that keeps the air inside a greenhouse warmer than the air outside. Have you ever been in a sunny spot in a car or by a closed window in your house? Do you notice how the air around you is warmer in that spot? That is because the visible light coming through the glass heats the surface of materials near the glass, warming the air.

In the Earth's environment, water vapor, clouds, carbon dioxide and other gases in our atmosphere act like the glass (in a greenhouse) by preventing some of the heat radiation from escaping into space. Due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere, more and more of the heat radiated by the Earth's surface may become trapped in the atmosphere, resulting in "global warming," or the gradual warming of the atmosphere around the world. Refer to The Greenhouse Effect Diagram attachment.

What will this do to our environment? Scientists and engineers predict that these changes may trigger disasters. It is speculated that an increase in the Earth's temperatures could cause droughts, tropical storms, and the melting of polar ice caps could cause a rise in sea levels, flooding of our shorelines and making the oceans less salty, threatening marine life.

While no one can predict for certain the impacts, scientists around the world have been recording temperatures and levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for years. They take measurements at the ground and aloft, using airplanes and balloons. Engineers design remote sensing instruments in satellites that provide data on temperatures, winds, and other atmospheric and oceanic conditions.


Before the Activity

  • At least one day in advance, fill the paper cups nearly full of water and freeze them solid.
  • Gather materials and make copies of The Greenhouse Effect Reading.

With the Students

A photograph shows an aluminum pie tin with red, blue and green clay shapes in the bottom.
Figure 1. Colored modeling clay formed into miniature continental and coastline land forms.
Copyright © 2004 Chris Bonilha, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

  1. Take a class vote. Ask a true/false question and have students vote by holding thumbs up for true and thumbs down for false. Count the votes and write the totals on the board. Give the right answer. Ask the students, "True or False: The greenhouse effect is caused, in part, by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." (Answer: True)
  2. Divide the class into groups of four students each.
  3. Distribute an aluminum tray and clay to each group.
  4. Ask each group to use the clay to make a model of a coastline (including rivers, mountains, lakes, trees, towns, etc.) inside the aluminum tray (see Figure 1).
  5. Distribute water to the groups and ask them to fill their lakes and the ocean (fill only to half the height of the tray).
  6. Distribute the blocks of ice (frozen in paper cups). Ask the students to remove the ice from the cups and place them on the tallest points of their models.
  7. Direct teams to cover the entire model with plastic wrap (see Figure 2). This represents the layer of greenhouse gases (mostly CO2) around the Earth.

A photograph shows an aluminum pie tin with clay shapes in the bottom, a chunk of ice sitting on part of the clay, and the entire tin enclosed with plastic wrap.
Figure 2. An environmental model with land forms, water and ice, is enclosed by plastic wrap, representing the Earth's layer of greenhouse gases.
Copyright © 2004 Chris Bonilha, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

  1. Ask the students to make predictions of what is going to happen to their models as the ice melts.
  2. Leave the models in warm, but not hot, locations until the ice melts.
  3. Periodically ask students to observe the changes in the systems. Record these observations on the board, journals or somewhere in the classroom.
  4. While waiting for the ice to melt, read The Greenhouse Effect Reading. (This can be done as a class or in student groups.)
  5. As a class, discuss the following questions:
  • What do scientists think is causing the increased greenhouse effect on Earth? (Answer: Clearing of rainforests, human-made fires, automobiles, fertilizers.) Can you think of other sources of greenhouse gases not mentioned here? (Answer: Industry manufacturing, power plants, or any other new sources of air pollution.)
  • What do scientists think will be the effects of global warming? (Answer: Increased global temperatures, changing weather patterns, rise in sea levels, dilution of salt content in oceans.) Are you observing any of these things in your models? (Answer: Rises in water levels.)
  • What roles and responsibilities do engineers have for preventing the increased greenhouse effect? (Answers: Develop improved technologies to better clean pollutants emitted from manufacturing and power plants. Develop cleaner industrial and energy production processes, such as solar, wind and hydrogen energy.)
  • What roles and responsibilities do you have? (Possible answers: Carpool, ride your bike, turn off lights when you are not in the room, conserve energy, plant trees, etc.)
  1. As a class, discuss student observations of what happened to their models when the ice melted.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Voting: Ask a true/false question and have students vote by holding thumbs up for true and thumbs down for false. Tally the votes and write the totals on the board. Give the right answer.

  • True or False: The greenhouse effect is caused, in part, by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Answer: True)

Questions: Have students come up with questions to ask eachother about global warming (i.e., what factors have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century?). After the lesson, have students answer the questions.

Predictions: Ask the students to make predictions of what is going to happen to their models as the ice melts.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Discussion Questions: While waiting for the ice to melt, read The Greenhouse Effect Reading (as a class or in student groups), and ask the students the questions provided at the end of the Procedure section.

Post-Activity Assessment

Drawing: Have students make drawings of their models. Use blue arrows to show what happened to the ice as it melted. Have them explain what the increase in temperature did to their models.

Community Debate: Have students write and perform short plays or debates about the activity topic. The setting is a town meeting about a relevant issue. The people present are: engineer, scientist, manager of the industry, local politician and various citizens. The scenario is: The community is located on the Florida shoreline. The citizens have noticed some of their beaches are decreasing in size, due to a rise in water level. They want to know what they can do to help decrease global climate change and save their beach.

Safety Issues

Make students aware that the floors may become slippery with water spills.

Troubleshooting Tips

Be prepared with towels to mop up any water spills.

The clay can be reused if stored properly.

Activity Extensions

Ask students to measure initial and final volumes of water or the rise in lake levels and sea level in their models.

Ask students to write and illustrate stories about what the Earth would be like in the distant future if global warming predictions occur.

Use the Internet to find information on how to reduce CO2 levels in our daily lives. Challenge the students to make changes in their lives to meet a goal, for example, to change some habits in their lives that save 2,000 pounds or more of CO2 per year.

Activity Scaling

For lower grades, consider building one larger demonstration model for the entire class. Ask students to draw pictures of what they think the Earth might look like in the future (1,000 years or more) if global warming occurs.


Investigations in Science – Ecology. Huntington Beach, CA: Creative Teaching Press, 1995. (Activity adapted from "The Greenhouse Effect Activity.")

Project A.I.R.E. (Air Information Resources for Educators), Air Quality Curriculum. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New England. Accessed July 24, 2004. http://www.epa.gov/region01/students/teacher/airqual.html


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado


Amy Kolenbrander; Janet Yowell; Natalie Mach; Chris Bonilha; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: May 9, 2020

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