Temperature and Earth Climate: Modeling Hot and Cold Planets
Front cover of the What Determines a Planet's Climate educator guide

Featured Lesson(s)

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Essential Question

What determines a planet's climate?


The module uses science and mathematics concepts to help students explore factors affecting the habitability of planets to answer the question "What determines a Planet's Climate?" Presented with a science problem, students seek answers and consensus by experimenting with physical and computer models, collecting and analyzing their own measurements, and comparing their data with real-world data from satellites and ground-based observations.

This module is divided into four major topics, each introduced by a real-world problem.

    • Topic 1 -- "Temperature Variations and Habitability" gives students a chance to summarize their current understanding of factors influencing planetary temperatures.
    • Topic 2 -- "Modeling Hot and Cold Planets" allows students to conduct experiments with physical and very basic computer models to build a conceptual or qualitative understanding of relationships among selected variables contributing to temperature of a planet.
    • Topic 3 -- "Using Mathematical Models to Investigate Planetary Habitability” involves students in quantifying the relationships with more advanced computer modeling tools.
    • Topic 4- "How Do Atmospheres Affect Planetary Temperatures?" introduces students to a more complete, quantitative system understanding of how energy interacts with surface and atmospheric characteristics to produce a planetary energy budget and greenhouse effect.

In all, the module contains 12 activities, each taking from one to five class periods to complete. At the end of each section, students synthesize their findings into an essay responding to questions posed in the real-world problem presented earlier.

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Lesson Information

Subject(s) Covered:

 Earth science

Topic(s) Covered:

 Climate, weather, solar radiation, energy

Activity Type:

 Problem solving, Inquiry

Grade Level:


Instructional Objective:

 Students • Develop a scientific view that our environment is a system of human and natural processes resulting in change. • Design an experiment to test and answer a specific question. • Differentiate between independent and dependent variable. • Explain the relationship among temperature, energy inputs and surface features. • Describe the strengths and limitations of physical models.

Time to Complete the Activity:

 Two to three 45 minute classes

  Materials Needed:

 Items per team:

  • 2 small plastic containers.
  • 2 light sources (150-watt bulbs).
  • 2 digital thermometers.
  • Various colors of aquarium gravel.
  • Various colors of modeling clay.
  • Water.
  • Sand.
  • Rolls of cotton.
  • Transparency sheets.
  • Rolls of clear plastic wrap.
  • Bag of aquarium moss.
  • Computer.
  • Web browser.
  • Courseware loaded into your Web browser

   National Content Standards:



  • 21st Century Skill: Reason Effectively
  • 21st Century Outcome: Learning and Innovation Skills
  • 21st Century Element: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
    • Earth and Space Science: Earth in the Solar System
    • Physical Science: Transfer of Energy
    • Math Standard #1: Problem Solving
  • Apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies to solve problems.
    • Math Standard #2: Measurement
  • Apply appropriate techniques, tools and formulas to determine measurements.
    • Math Standard #3: Problem Solving
  • Build new mathematical knowledge through problem solving.
    • Math Standard #4: Communication
  • Communicate mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers and others.
    • Math Standard #5: Data Analysis and Probability
  • Develop and evaluate inferences and predictions that are based on data.
    • Math Standard #6: Data Analysis and Probability
  • Formulate questions that can be addressed with data, and collect, organize and display relevant data to answer them.
    • Math Standard #7: Connections
  • Understand how mathematical ideas interconnect and build on one another to produce a coherent whole.
    • Math Standard #8: Algebra
  • Use mathematical models to represent and understand quantitative relationships.
    • Technology Standard #1: Abilities for a Technological World
  • Develop the abilities to apply the design process.