Lesson: Global Climate Change

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

A colorful drawing that shows the Earth enclosed in a greenhouse, being heated by the sun.
Global warming harming our planet is a great concern
copyright
Copyright © 2009 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

Summary

Students learn how the greenhouse effect is related to global warming and how global warming impacts our planet, including global climate change. Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and how we react to these changes are the main points of focus of this lesson.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers affect our planet in every design decision they make, from the choice of materials they use to the energy needed for their designs. For example, environmental engineers design products that aim to directly improve the environment, such as designing remediation systems to clean up a toxic spill. All engineers must have a global awareness in the design process and an understanding of how their decision can impact global climate change.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe the greenhouse effect and global warming.
  • Explain the concept of climate change.
  • Consider the effects of climate change on extreme weather.
  • Recognize ways that they can lower their impact on the environment at home.

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Students are presented with examples of the types of problems that environmental engineers solve, specifically focusing on air and land quality issues.

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.

  • Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve unit rate problems including those involving unit pricing and constant speed. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Summarize numerical data sets in relation to their context, such as by: (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Decisions to develop and use technologies often put environmental and economic concerns in direct competition with one another. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Much of the energy used in our environment is not used efficiently. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop, communicate and justify an evidence-based scientific explanation to account for Earth's different climates (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Research and evaluate direct and indirect evidence to explain how climates vary from one location to another on Earth (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Introduction/Motivation

Greenhouse gases (including CO2, water vapor and aerosols) are found in the atmosphere above the surface of the Earth. Their job is to trap heat reflected off the Earth from the Sun. You have probably experienced the greenhouse effect while sitting in a car that is parked in the Sun. The glass windows let in light but keep heat from escaping. If it is a bit chilly out, it may feel nice to get into a warm car, but on a hot day, it can be very uncomfortable to get inside a car that is rapidly warming up in the hot Sun. (You may even open the doors and let some of the hot air escape before getting in the car.)

The same is true for the Earth. Figure 2 illustrates how greenhouse gases warm up the Earth. If we did not have greenhouse gases, the Earth would be 60˚F colder! That would mean it would get down to (insert your typically low temperature minus 60°F based on the weather in your area) in the winter! So, it would be safe to say then that greenhouse gases are necessary to survive in our world; but, similar to sitting in a car on a really hot day, too much trapped heat can make it difficult to survive as well. A delicate balance — between what is necessary and what is too much — is key to our survival on this planet. Even small changes in our global climate can have a big impact on how we live.

A diagram shows energy from the Sun hitting the Earth. Some solar radiation is absorbed, some is reflected, and some is re-emitted back to the Earth by greenhouse gas molecules.
Figure 2. How the greenhouse effect impacts the Earth.
copyright
Copyright © Environmental Protection Agency http://yosemite.epa.gov/OAR/globalwarming.nsf/content/Climate.html

What are some ways that you think global warming might affect people? (Give students a moment to write down and/or share their answers.) It is difficult to predict how global warming influences extreme weather events — such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and tornados, but we can be fairly certain that a warmer atmosphere will at least result in a greater number of extreme heat waves. More rain may be a result as well. Just as a puddle will disappear by evaporating more quickly on a hot summer day, a warmer planet allows more evaporation to occur resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere. This can lead to more frequent and heavier storms when that added moisture is released back onto the surface of the planet. Many scientists believe Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, was stronger due to the warmer waters it traveled over in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused more water to be evaporated into the storm clouds.

Our sea level has already risen 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) during the past century. Some scientists believe that if global warming continues, and our glaciers continue to melt adding more water into the ocean waters, that rising sea levels could flood coastal areas sending millions of inhabitants out of their homes around the world, all within this century. Can you imagine if coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco were underwater?!

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

A worldwide effort, the Kyoto Protocol, is taking steps to limit the amount of greenhouses gases being released into the atmosphere by alloting a certain amount of allowed pollution (or "pollution credits") to every industrialized/developed country (except the U.S. who is not participating). Companies that have cut back on the amount of greenhouse gases they are releasing may sell their "pollution credits" to other companies who are over their allowed amount. For example, if one company is given 10 credits, and they only release 8 credits worth of greenhouses gases into the air, they can sell the other 2 credits to another company who is polluting over their limit.

Many scientists and engineers believe that human activity has contributed to global cliimate change, and that we can prevent it by limiting our output of greenhouse gases. What human activities create greenhouse gases? Most of it comes from burning fossil fuels (such as oil, gas and coal) for energy to light our houses, drive our cars, and manufacture products such as paper, plastics, computers, skateboards and packaged foods. Everything that we buy requires some form of energy to create it and then be made available for us to purchase it. Most of this energy comes from burning fuels such as coal and oil. Burning these fuels releases greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases are sent into the air every time a new product is manufactured, and even more greenhouse gases are released into landfills as these products are thrown away. Landfill gas (LFG), naturally produced by the decomposition of organic materials in landfills, contains mostly methane and carbon dioxide — both of which are greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Vocabulary/Definitions

climate: The average weather (usually taken over a 30-year time period) for a particular region and time period; the average pattern of weather for a particular region; climatic elements include precipitation, temperature, humidity, sunshine, wind velocity, and phenomena, such as fog, frost and hail storms.

climate change: The change in long-term weather patterns; changes can cause warmer or colder temperatures; annual amounts of rainfall or snowfall can increase or decrease.

global warming: Refers to an average increase in the Earth's temperature, which in turn causes changes in climate; a warmer Earth may lead to changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level, and a wide range of impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans.

greenhouse effect: The effect produced as greenhouse gases allow energy from the sun to pass through the Earth's atmosphere, but prevent most of the outgoing heat from the surface and lower atmosphere from escaping into outer space.

greenhouse gas: Any gas that absorbs the sun's heat in the atmosphere, including water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), halogenated fluorocarbons (HCFCs), ozone (O3), perfluorinated carbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Associated Activities

  • Trash to Treasure! - Students design and build products made entirely from reused materials.

Lesson Closure

Much of our daily human activities directly or indirectly contribute to increasing greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. Engineers can help reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases by designing products that limit the production of these harmful gases.

Attachments

Assessment

Pre-Lesson Assessment

Stop and Jot: Ask students to write down some ideas they have for ways to help the environment. After a few minutes, have them share their ideas. Some ideas include:

  • Walk or ride your bike when possible.
  • Turn off the TV, radio, computer and other electronics when not in use.
  • Recycle.
  • Buy recycled products.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Avoid buying products with a lot of packaging.
  • Turn the heat and air conditioning down; just a couple of degrees can make a big difference.
  • Replace light bulbs with energy efficient CFLs that use 60% less energy.

Post-Introduction Assessment

Question/Answer: Ask the students a question and instruct them to raise their hands to respond; discuss their answers as a class:

  • Can anyone think of other ways that a warmer planet may affect us besides just having hotter temperatures? (Possible answers: More rainfall in some areas, drought in some areas, heavier storms, higher sea levels, crops that no longer grow in certain locations, changes in our ecosystems, etc.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Remind them that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond. Write their ideas on the board. Ask the students:

  • What can you do to cut down the amount of greenhouse gases that you are contributing to the atmosphere?

Group Discussion/Presentation: With the class divided into groups of four students each, ask students to design posters that answer the following questions. Have teams present their posters in front of the class.

  • What is global warming?
  • What is causing global warming?
  • How does global warming affect you?
  • What can engineers do to prevent or slow down global warming?

Homework

Carbon Footprint Worksheet: Ask the students to take home the Carbon Footprint Worksheet and fill it out with their parents based on their family's energy use.

After completion of the worksheets, as a class compute the class mean footprint and discuss why some students have larger or smaller numbers.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students complete one of the activities described in the U.S. Department of Energy's online teacher's toolbox as developed by the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program (ARMP); see: http://www.arm.gov/education/teacher-tools.

References

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program, "Bringing Climate Change into the Classroom." ARM Education Program, North Slope of Alaska, 2002, October 28, 2008, accessed June 22, 2009. http://www.arm.gov/news/education/post/16864

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Climate Change Kids Site, October 30, 2008, accessed June 22, 2009. http://epa.gov/globalwarming/kids/

"Greenhouse Effect," October 23, 2006, accessed June 22, 2009. http://www.epa.gov/globalwarming/kids/greenhouse.html

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Global Warming – Climate, January 7, 2000, accessed June 22, 2009. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/

Contributors

Christie Chatterley; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell; Karen King; Denise W. Carlson

Copyright

© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

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

Acknowledgements

The contents of these digital library curricula were developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 22, 2017

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