Essential Principle 2: Correlation to Standards and Curriculum Connections

Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system is the second of seven Essential Principles of Climate Sciences. Principle 2 describes how the oceanic, atmospheric, biologic and geologic processes all drive the climate system. In this article we provide a list of learning objectives and excerpts from the National Science Education Standards that are associated with Principle 2 concepts. Lessons and activities that provide hands-on experiences or simulations of these concepts can help students develop a correct understanding. Lessons can be found in the article Setting the Stage for Understanding the Climate System’s Complex Interactions. Content area reading, such as our Feature Story and titles from our Virtual Bookshelf, can extend and supplement the hands-on inquiry. You can read more about the science content knowledge needed to understand these concepts in the article Climate: A Complex Interaction in this issue.

But first we provide information on some common misconceptions about heat and the greenhouse effect and include tools for formative assessment in the Curriculum Connections section.

Curriculum Connections


While identifying student misconceptions is fairly straightforward, creating conceptual change is not. Researchers recommend using a hands-on approach and providing adequate time and repeated activities to create the conditions necessary for conceptual change. However, it is important to understand that children may be quite resistant to change even when these recommendations are carefully followed. In some situations, researchers found that students developed two parallel explanations for scientific events: one for science class and one for the “real world”! Instead of becoming discouraged, teachers should be aware of the ideas that students bring with them to science and how these might influence instruction and learning.

The natural greenhouse effect is a common source of students’ prior concepts or misunderstandings. For example, grasping the greenhouse effect requires comprehension of several principles, each drawn from a different area of the sciences:

  • The basics of atmospheric structure and composition, including the concept that air has mass (Earth science).
  • The properties of gases, particularly those gases that can trap infrared heat due to their number of bonds and their ability to absorb and release energy (resonant frequency) (chemistry/physics).
  • Electromagnetic radiation, particularly the difference between incoming shortwave and outgoing longwave energy (physics).

The Greenhouse Gas Effect. Image courtesy of Tufts University.

Understanding heat transfer is challenging for many learners, and the greenhouse effect is difficult even for adults to grasp. Attempts to oversimplify the greenhouse effect can be counter-productive and further confuse learners. For younger students the mental model of how the natural greenhouse effect is like a “blanket” that keeps heat under the covers may be appropriate, but by high school and certainly by college, students should have a clearer understanding of the mechanics of the greenhouse effect. This concept, well established in science literature and observations, is essential to understanding how human activities are impacting the climate system.

It is also important to remember that some of the misconceptions regarding heat and the greenhouse effect may be appropriate for students’ current developmental level. Concepts such as temperature and absorption are difficult and cannot be easily visualized. While the concepts may be introduced in the elementary grades, teachers should remember that students will develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding over the years and that complete mastery of these concepts is not to be expected at this point.

However, there are steps that elementary teachers can take to ensure that students begin to develop correct scientific concepts. Evaluating lesson plans, textbooks, and children’s literature for correct use of terminology and concepts is an important step in promoting scientific understanding.


Heat is an important type of energy, but, like other forms of energy and energy transfer, it is one that students typically hold misconceptions about. The web page Children’s Misconceptions about Science provides a list of misconceptions in several areas of physical science, including heat and temperature. Here are a few that teachers may have encountered:

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Heat is a substance. Heat is not energy. Heat is energy.
Temperature is a property of a particular material or object. (For example, students may believe that metal is naturally cooler than plastic.) Temperature is not a property of materials or objects. Objects exposed to the same ambient conditions will have the same temperature.
The temperature of an object depends on its size. Temperature does not depend on size.
Heat and cold are different. Cold is the absence of heat. Heat and cold can be thought of as opposite ends of a continuum.
Cold is transferred from one object to another. Heat is transferred from one object to another. Heat moves from the warmer object to the cooler object.
Objects that keep things warm (sweaters, mittens, blankets) are sources of heat. Objects keep things warm by trapping heat.
Some substances (flour, sugar, air) cannot heat up. All substances heat up, although some gain heat more easily than others.
Objects that readily become warm (conductors of heat) do not readily become cold. Conductors gain (and lose) heat easily.

Greenhouse Effect

This concept is difficult for many learners because it deals with matter that is often invisible. Discussions about gases and the atmosphere tend to be abstract rather than concrete, which increases the probability of misconceptions. The following are from Children’s Misconceptions About Weather: A Review of the Literature. Many other misconceptions are included for concepts such as the atmosphere, clouds, seasons, and weather.

Many students think . . . Instead of thinking . . . .
The greenhouse effect is caused when gases in the atmosphere behave as a blanket and trap radiation which is then reradiated to the Earth.Absorption by the glass in greenhouses is the main factor responsible for higher temperatures inside.The blanket analogy is not a bad one but students need to see where the analogy breaks down. Gases in the atmosphere are able to absorb and reflect radiated heat from Earth back to Earth’s surface. Some of the heat they absorb does get radiated to space, but some gets radiated back toward Earth. Suppression of convection is the main factor responsible for higher temperatures in greenhouses and closed cars.Some suggest that this phenomenon should be called the atmospheric effect instead of the greenhouse effect.
Global warming and the greenhouse effect are the same thing.Possible source of misconception: the greenhouse effect and global warming are often mentioned together in the media. This causes many to link them and think they are interchangeable. Global warmingis the name given to the phenomena whereby the surface of the Earth gets hotter.Our planet is warmer with an atmosphere than it would be without. This phenomenon has been given the name greenhouse effect. The atmosphere is different from a greenhouse in that it radiates energy back to Earth rather than simply trapping energy inside.
The greenhouse effect is bad and will eventually cause all living things to die. Without an atmosphere, Earth would receive significantly less heat; life as we know it would not exist. The greenhouse effect, therefore, is not a bad thing.
Cold days are caused by the clouds covering the Sun.Snow and ice make it cold. The temperature of a given day is dependent upon many different things, including time of year, location, altitude, and prevailing winds. The snow and ice are functions of cold temperatures, not the cause of them.
Ozone, no matter its location, is bad.Ozone, no matter its location, is good. Ozone can be beneficial or harmful, depending upon where it is located in the atmosphere. Ozone in the upper atmosphere blocks out damaging UV radiation. Ozone in the lower atmosphere (near Earth’s surface) is a major constituent of smog.
The ozone hole is a hole in the sky. The ozone hole is an area of the atmosphere where the ozone levels are lower than expected

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is a useful tool for learning about student misconceptions, allowing you to tailor instruction to challenge students and evaluate the effectiveness of your instruction in promoting conceptual change. Several resources from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) provide valuable information for teachers wishing to incorporate formative assessment into their science instruction.

Science Formative Assessments: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning by Page Keeley provides specific techniques that use assessment to inform instruction and learning in K-12 science classrooms.

Another useful set of resources from NSTA Press is the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series. Each volume contains 25 formative assessment probes for use with students as well as suggestions for classroom use and inquiry-based teaching ideas. To date, there are four volumes in the series:

Finally, a new series, also from NSTA Press, follows the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series but focuses on Physical Science:

Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science, Volume 1: 45 New Force and Motion Assessment Probes by Page Keeley and Rand Harrington

Continual formative assessment and dialogue about heat and the greenhouse effect will help you understand what your students are learning and how to best plan future instruction. Conversations and questioning techniques can also be used to guide and shape student understanding. For more information about asking effective questions, please refer to the article Questioning Techniques: Research-Based Strategies for Teachers.

National Science Education Standards

A study of the Earth system, oceans, the greenhouse effect, and biogeochemical cycles aligns with the Unifying Concepts and Processes (Grades K-12) and the Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4 and 5-8.

Grades K-12 Unifying Concepts and Processes

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop understanding and abilities aligned with the following concepts and processes


The natural and designed world is complex; it is too large and complicated to investigate and comprehend all at once. Scientists and students learn to define small portions for the convenience of investigation. The units of investigation can be referred to as ”systems.” A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems can consist, for example, of organisms, machines, fundamental particles, galaxies, ideas, numbers, transportation, and education. Systems have boundaries, components, resources flow (input and output), and feedback.

The goal of this standard is to think and analyze in terms of systems. Thinking and analyzing in terms of systems will help students keep track of mass, energy, objects, organisms, and events referred to in the other content standards. The idea of simple systems encompasses subsystems as well as identifying the structure and function of systems, feedback and equilibrium, and the distinction between open and closed systems.

Science assumes that the behavior of the universe is not capricious, that nature is the same everywhere, and that it is understandable and predictable. Students can develop an understanding of regularities in systems, and by extension, the universe; they then can develop understanding of basic laws, theories, and models that explain the world.

Developing Student Understanding

This standard presents broad unifying concepts and processes that complement the analytic, more discipline-based perspectives presented in the other content standards. The conceptual and procedural schemes in this standard provide students with productive and insightful ways of thinking about and integrating a range of basic ideas that explain the natural and designed world.

Grades K-4 Physical Science Content Standard B

As a result of the activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of


  • Light travels in a straight line until it strikes an object. Light can be reflected by a mirror, refracted by a lens, or absorbed by the object.
  • Heat can be produced in many ways, such as burning, rubbing, or mixing one substance with another. Heat can move from one object to another by conduction.

Developing Student Understanding
Physical science in grades K-4 includes topics that give students a chance to increase their understanding of the characteristics of objects and materials that they encounter daily. Through the observation, manipulation, and classification of common objects, children reflect on the similarities and differences of the objects. Young children begin their study of matter by examining and qualitatively describing objects and their behavior. The important but abstract ideas of science, such as atomic structure of matter and the conservation of energy, all begin with observing and keeping track of the way the world behaves. When carefully observed, described, and measured, the properties of objects, changes in properties over time, and the changes that occur when materials interact provide the necessary precursors to the later introduction of more abstract ideas in the upper grade levels.

Grades K-4 Life Science Content Standard C

As a result of the activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of


  • An organism’s patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism’s environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce and others die or move to new locations.
  • All organisms cause changes in the environment where they live. Some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, whereas others are beneficial.
  • Humans depend on their natural and constructed environments. Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

Developing Student Understanding

During the elementary grades, children build understanding of biological concepts through direct experience with living things, their life cycles, and their habitats. These experiences emerge from the sense of wonder and natural interests of children who ask questions such as: ”How do plants get food? How many different animals are there? Why do some animals eat other animals? What is the largest plant? Where did the dinosaurs go?” An understanding of the characteristics of organisms, life cycles of organisms, and of the complex interactions among all components of the natural environment begins with questions such as these and an understanding of how individual organisms maintain and continue life. Making sense of the way organisms live in their environments will develop some understanding of the diversity of life and how all living organisms depend on the living and nonliving environment for survival. Because the child’s world at grades K-4 is closely associated with the home, school, and immediate environment, the study of organisms should include observations and interactions within the natural world of the child. The experiences and activities in grades K-4 provide a concrete foundation for the progressive development in the later grades of major biological concepts, such as evolution, heredity, the cell, the biosphere, interdependence, the behavior of organisms, and matter and energy in living systems.

Young children think concretely about individual organisms. For example, animals are associated with pets or with animals kept in a zoo. The idea that organisms depend on their environment (including other organisms in some cases) is not well developed in young children. In grades K-4, the focus should be on establishing the primary association of organisms with their environments and the secondary ideas of dependence on various aspects of the environment and of behaviors that help various animals survive. Lower elementary students can understand the food link between two organisms.

Grades K-4 Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

As a result of their activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of


  • The sun, moon, stars, clouds, birds, and airplanes all have properties, locations, and movements that can be observed and described.
  • The sun provides the light and heat necessary to maintain the temperature of the earth.


  • The surface of the earth changes. Some changes are due to slow processes, such as erosion and weathering, and some changes are due to rapid processes, such as landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.
  • Weather changes from day to day and over the seasons. Weather can be described by measurable quantities, such as temperature, wind direction and speed, and precipitation.

Developing Student Understanding
Young children are naturally interested in everything they see around them – soil, rocks, streams, rain, snow, clouds, rainbows, sun, moon, and stars. During the first years of school, they should be encouraged to observe closely the objects and materials in their environment, note their properties, distinguish one from another and develop their own explanations of how things become the way they are. As children become more familiar with their world, they can be guided to observe changes, including cyclic changes, such as night and day and the seasons; predictable trends, such as growth and decay, and less consistent changes, such as weather or the appearance of meteors.

Children should have opportunities to observe rapid changes, such as the movement of water in a stream, as well as gradual changes, such as the erosion of soil and the change of the seasons. Emphasis in grades K-4 should be on developing observation and description skills and the explanations based on observations. Younger children should be encouraged to talk about and draw what they see and think. Older students can keep journals, use instruments, and record their observations and measurements.

Grades K-4 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of


  • Environments are the space, conditions, and factors that affect an individual’s and a population’s ability to survive and their quality of life.
  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither good nor bad. Pollution is a change in the environment that can influence the health, survival, or activities of organisms, including humans.
  • Some environmental changes occur slowly, and others occur rapidly. Students should understand the different consequences of changing environments in small increments over long periods as compared with changing environments in large increments over short periods.

Developing Student Understanding
Students in elementary school should have a variety of experiences that provide initial understandings for various science-related personal and societal challenges. Central ideas related to health, populations, resources, and environments provide the foundations for students’ eventual understandings and actions as citizens. Although the emphasis in grades K-4 should be on initial understandings, students can engage in some personal actions in local challenges related to science and technology.

By grades 3 and 4, students regard pollution as something sensed by people and know that it might have bad effects on people and animals. Children at this age usually do not consider harm to plants as part of environmental problems; however, recent media attention might have increased students’ awareness of the importance of trees in the environment. In most cases, students recognize pollution as an environmental issue, scarcity as a resource issue, and crowded classrooms or schools as population problems. Most young students conceive of these problems as isolated issues that can be solved by dealing with them individually. For example, pollution can be solved by cleaning up the environment and producing less waste, scarcity can be solved by using less, and crowding can be solved by having fewer students in class or school. However, understanding the interrelationships is not the priority in elementary school.

As students expand their conceptual horizons across grades K-12, they will eventually develop a view that is not centered exclusively on humans and begin to recognize that individual actions accumulate into societal actions. Eventually, students must recognize that society cannot afford to deal only with symptoms: The causes of the problems must be the focus of personal and societal actions.

Grades 5-8 Physical Science Content Standard B

As a result of their activities in grades 5–8, all students should develop an understanding of


  • A substance has characteristic properties, such as density, a boiling point, and solubility, all of which are independent of the amount of the sample. A mixture of substances often can be separated into the original substances using one or more of the characteristic properties.
  • Substances react chemically in characteristic ways with other substances to form new substances (compounds) with different characteristic properties. In chemical reactions, the total mass is conserved. Substances often are placed in categories or groups if they react in similar ways; metals are an example of such a group.
  • Chemical elements do not break down during normal laboratory reactions involving such treatments as heating, exposure to electric current, or reaction with acids. There are more than 100 known elements that combine in a multitude of ways to produce compounds, which account for the living and nonliving substances that we encounter.


  • Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical. Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • Light interacts with matter by transmission (including refraction), absorption, or scattering (including reflection).
  • The sun is a major source of energy for changes on the earth’s surface. The sun loses energy by emitting light. A tiny fraction of that light reaches the earth, transferring energy from the sun to the earth. The sun’s energy arrives as light with a range of wavelengths, consisting of visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet radiation.

Developing Student Understanding
In grades 5–8, the focus on student understanding shifts from properties of objects and materials to the characteristic properties of the substances from which the materials are made. In the K-4 years, students learned that objects and materials can be sorted and ordered in terms of their properties. During that process, they learned that some properties, such as size, weight, and shape, can be assigned only to the object while other properties, such as color, texture, and hardness, describe the materials from which objects are made. In grades 5-8, students observe and measure characteristic properties, such as boiling points, melting points, solubility, and simple chemical changes of pure substances and use those properties to distinguish and separate one substance from another.

Students usually bring some vocabulary and primitive notions of atomicity to the science class but often lack understanding of the evidence and the logical arguments that support the particulate model of matter. Their early ideas are that the particles have the same properties as the parent material; that is, they are a tiny piece of the substance. It can be tempting to introduce atoms and molecules or improve students’ understanding of them so that particles can be used as an explanation for the properties of elements and compounds. However, use of such terminology is premature for these students and can distract from the understanding that can be gained from focusing on the observation and description of macroscopic features of substances and of physical and chemical reactions. At this level, elements and compounds can be defined operationally from their chemical characteristics, but few students can comprehend the idea of atomic and molecular particles.

The understanding of energy in grades 5-8 will build on the K-4 experiences with light, heat, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the motion of objects. In 5-8, students begin to see the connections among those phenomena and to become familiar with the idea that energy is an important property of substances and that most change involves energy transfer. Students might have some of the same views of energy as they do of force – that it is associated with animate objects and is linked to motion. In addition, students view energy as a fuel or something that is stored, ready to use, and gets used up. The intent at this level is for students to improve their understanding of energy by experiencing many kinds of energy transfer.

Grades 5-8 Life Science Content Standard C

As a result of their activities in grades 5–8, all students should develop an understanding of


  • A population consists of all individuals of a species that occur together at a given place and time. All populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem.

Developing Student Understanding

In the middle-school years, students should progress from studying life science from the point of view of individual organisms to recognizing patterns in ecosystems and developing understandings about the cellular dimensions of living systems. For example, students should broaden their understanding from the way one species lives in its environment to populations and communities of species and the ways they interact with each other and with their environment.

Students understand ecosystems and the interactions between organisms and environments well enough by this stage to introduce ideas about nutrition and energy flow, although some students might be confused by charts and flow diagrams. If asked about common ecological concepts, such as community and competition between organisms, teachers are likely to hear responses based on everyday experiences rather than scientific explanations. Teachers should use the students’ understanding as a basis to develop the scientific understanding.

Grades 5-8 Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Water, which covers the majority of the earth’s surface, circulates through the crust, oceans, and atmosphere in what is known as the “water cycle.” Water evaporates from the earth’s surface, rises and cools as it moves to higher elevations, condenses as rain or snow, and falls to the surface where it collects in lakes, oceans, soil, and in rocks underground.
  • Water is a solvent. As it passes through the water cycle it dissolves minerals and gases and carries them to the oceans.
  • The atmosphere is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases that include water vapor. The atmosphere has different properties at different elevations.
  • Clouds, formed by the condensation of water vapor, affect weather and climate.
  • Global patterns of atmospheric movement influence local weather. Oceans have a major effect on climate, because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat.
  • Living organisms have played many roles in the earth system, including affecting the composition of the atmosphere, producing some types of rocks, and contributing to the weathering of rocks.


  • The sun is the major source of energy for phenomena on the earth’s surface, such as growth of plants, winds, ocean currents, and the water cycle. Seasons result from variations in the amount of the sun’s energy hitting the surface, due to the tilt of the earth’s rotation on its axis and the length of the day.

Developing Student Understanding

A major goal of science in the middle grades is for students to develop an understanding of earth and the solar system as a set of closely coupled systems. The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the earth system—geosphere (crust, mantle, and core), hydrosphere (water), atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (the realm of all living things). In this holistic approach to studying the planet, physical, chemical, and biological processes act within and among the four components on a wide range of time scales to change continuously earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms. Students can investigate the water and rock cycles as introductory examples of geophysical and geochemical cycles. Their study of earth’s history provides some evidence about co-evolution of the planet’s main features—the distribution of land and sea, features of the crust, the composition of the atmosphere, global climate, and populations of living organisms in the biosphere.

Grades 5-8 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.


  • Risk analysis considers the type of hazard and estimates the number of people that might be exposed and the number likely to suffer consequences. The results are used to determine the options for reducing or eliminating risks.
  • Students should understand the risks associated with natural hazards (fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions), with chemical hazards (pollutants in air, water, soil, and food), with biological hazards (pollen, viruses, bacterial, and parasites), social hazards (occupational safety and transportation), and with personal hazards (smoking, dieting, and drinking).
  • Individuals can use a systematic approach to thinking critically about risks and benefits. Examples include applying probability estimates to risks and comparing them to estimated personal and social benefits.
  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.

Developing Student Understanding
By grades 5-8, students begin to develop a more conceptual understanding of ecological crises. For example, they begin to realize the cumulative ecological effects of pollution. By this age, students can study environmental issues of a large and abstract nature, for example, acid rain or global ozone depletion. However, teachers should challenge several important misconceptions, such as anything natural is not a pollutant, oceans are limitless resources, and humans are indestructible as a species.

Little research is available on students’ perceptions of risk and benefit in the context of science and technology. Students sometimes view social harm from technological failure as unacceptable. On the other hand, some believe if the risk is personal and voluntary, then it is part of life and should not be the concern of others (or society). Helping students develop an understanding of risks and benefits in the areas of health, natural hazards – and science and technology in general – presents a challenge to middle-school teachers.

Middle-school students are generally aware of science-technology-society issues from the media, but their awareness is fraught with misunderstandings. Teachers should begin developing student understanding with concrete and personal examples that avoid an exclusive focus on problems.

Note: Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Kimberly Lightle wrote this article. She received her PhD in science education at The Ohio State University and is principal investigator of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, and the Middle School Portal 2 projects. Email Kim at

Copyright March 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1034922. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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