Unit Plan: We Change Earth’s Climate

Are you feeling overwhelmed by the amount of content in this issue? Or are you wondering how you can integrate these resources into your own classroom? We’ve created a unit plan for Grades K-2 and 3-5 using the resources in this issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle. The units are modeled after a learning cycle framework built around five key steps — Engage, Explore, Explain, Expand, and Assess (or Evaluate).


The learning cycle

The Learning Cycle. Illustration from the Ohio Resource Center for Mathematics, Science, and Reading.

Grades K-2 and 3-5

Summary of Purpose for the Unit

This unit is designed to provide elementary students with the opportunity to learn about the greenhouse effect. It uses hands-on experiences and nonfiction text to answer the question How is Earth like a greenhouse?
One unit plan is provided for both grade bands. Teachers can modify the experience by selecting lessons and books that best support their students. Teachers of Grades K-2 might also modify the unit by asking students to explain the greenhouse effect orally after completing the hands-on experiences, rather than using the books to create a diagram.

Standards Alignment

National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards
Science content standards are found in Chapter 6 of the National Science Education Standards.

Earth and Space Science (Grades K-4)

  • Properties of Earth Materials

Earth and Space Science (Grades 5-8)

  • Structure of the Earth System

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts

View the standards at http://www.ncte.org/standards.

1 – Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts.
3 – Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
4 – Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
11 – Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
12 – Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.

Unit Outline


Begin by asking students if they have ever heard of or seen a greenhouse. Allow students to share their ideas and experiences. You may wish to share images of greenhouses (like the ones found in this Flickr search). If possible, you also might arrange for a field trip to a local greenhouse.

Next, read the first paragraph (page) of Life in the Greenhouse, in whichever grade level or format is appropriate. We recommend conducting this reading as a read-aloud. Discuss the paragraph with students, ensuring that they can explain how a greenhouse stays warm. Introduce the question How is Earth like a greenhouse? and allow students to share their thinking. Write this question on chart paper and display it throughout the unit.


Students should conduct the Greenhouse Effect in a Jar activity. This can be conducted as a whole-class activity, in small groups, or in pairs, depending on the age and abilities of your students. During the activity, use guiding questions to help students focus on making observations from the model and relating those observations to Earth:

  • What do you observe?
  • How is the temperature changing inside the jar?
  • How do the temperatures on the two thermometers compare?
  • What might explain the difference?
  • How might this activity help us understand how Earth is like a greenhouse?

After completing the activity, graph and discuss the results. Assist students in making evidence-based claims. Record the claims and the supporting evidence in a table (on chart paper or on the board) like the one shown below:

Evidence Claim Confirmed? Additional Evidence
The temperature inside the jar was hotter than outside. Heat was trapped inside the jar.

For now, leave the last two columns blank. Students will return to this table after completing a second activity.

Allow students to share all ideas about how the model represents Earth without correcting their thinking. Depending on the age of the students, you may choose to record their ideas on chart paper or have them write in their science notebooks.

Continue reading Life in the Greenhouse with students, but only read through the description of the experimental procedure (add page numbers). Discuss the text and how it compares to what students observed during the Greenhouse Effect in a Jar activity. Explain to students that they will confirm their findings by conducting the experiment described in the text. Allow students to complete this experiment in small groups or pairs, unless you teach young students or quantities of supplies are limited. Again, use guiding questions to help focus students’ attention:

  • What do you observe?
  • How is the temperature changing inside the covered jar?
  • How do the temperatures in the two jars compare?
  • What might explain the difference?
  • How do your findings compare to those from the first activity?
  • How might this activity help us understand how Earth is like a greenhouse?

Again, graph and discuss the results. Next, return to the table and ask students to examine the claims they made after the first activity. Did the second activity confirm these claims? If so, place a check mark (or write yes) in the appropriate column. In the final column, record the evidence that was used to confirm the claim. For example:

Evidence Claim Confirmed? Additional Evidence
The temperature inside the jar was hotter than outside. Heat was trapped inside the jar. Yes The temperature in the covered jar was hotter than in the uncovered jar.

If a claim was proved false by the second activity, cross it out and add a new claim to the table. Again, allow students to share their ideas about how the activity models Earth’s greenhouse effect. Finally, finish reading Life in the Greenhouse.


Explain to students that they will create a diagram (an infographic) showing how the greenhouse effect works. First, they will examine books (and online sources of information, if desired) to learn more about the greenhouse effect and view sample infographics. Introduce students to books about the greenhouse effect from our virtual bookshelf. Students will use text features such as the table of contents and index to locate information about the greenhouse effect and diagrams. Once students feel they have viewed enough examples and read enough text, they will individually created labeled diagrams depicting the greenhouse effect. Students will also explain their diagrams orally or in writing.


Ideally, student questions and interests guide this phase of the unit. Some possible topics for investigation include:

  • Differences in temperature between planets that have no atmosphere (Mercury) and those with thicker atmospheres than Earth’s (Venus and Jupiter).
  • Differences in the absorption and reflection of light by dark and light objects (albedo). Our sister project, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, has an informational text and related activities on this topic.
  • Learning how the atmosphere is one component of Earth’s climate system. Check out our informational text All About Earth’s Climate as a starting point!

One area we do not recommend for this phase is investigating the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases. Delving into human’s effects on the greenhouse effect and Earth’s climate is a complex and often scary topic best addressed in middle school and beyond.



Formative assessment can be conducted throughout the unit. For example:

  • Students’ initial discussions about greenhouses provide an idea of their prior understanding. You may choose to spend more or less time developing the concept of a greenhouse based on this discussion.
  • Observation of students’ participation in Explore phase activities will provide insight into their current understanding and engagement with the topic.
  • Student conversation during the Explore and Explain phases will demonstrate understanding, and may help you decide if certain concepts need to be addressed in more detail.
  • Students’ abilities to generate evidenced-based claims demonstrate emerging understanding. More time (or a more teacher-directed approach) may be needed if students are observed to struggle with this.


Students’ diagrams (infographics) about the greenhouse effect and their explanations of their work serve as summative assessment. Student work can be assessed with a rubric that includes criteria for scientific accuracy and overall quality of work.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. Jessica is the lower school science teacher at Columbus School for Girls, Columbus, Ohio. Email Jessica at beyondweather@msteacher.org.

Copyright December 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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