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Modeling Earth's Atmosphere

Author(s): Nancy P. Moreno, PhD, Barbara Z. Tharp, MS, and Judith Dresden, MS.

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In this activity, students will learn about Earth’s atmosphere by creating a scale model of the gaseous layers that surround our planet. The class will be divided into six groups, with each group responsible for creating a different part of the model (i.e., a different layer of the atmosphere), which should be assembled and displayed on the floor or on the wall.

Students will learn that the atmosphere consists of several layers of gases surrounding the Earth, and that each layer has different characteristics.

  1. Lay a sheet of brown or white paper (at least 2.5 meters long) on the floor, where students can work on it. Divide the class into six groups and give a Job card to each group. Groups will create and decorate the parts of the atmosphere model described on their cards. Discuss the scale of the model with the students (1 cm = 1/2 km; 2 cm = 1 km). Older students should measure and draw their own lines on the model.

  2. You may want students to cut off the different sections of the model, so groups can work in separate locations of the classroom. (Groups 1 and 2 will work on the same section.) Once all work is completed, have groups label their layers on the model, tape the sections together, and display the model somewhere in the classroom.

Group 1. Surface of Planet Earth: Draws a vertical line about 15 cm from the bottom of the sheet of paper (this line represents the Earth’s surface); creates features (mountains, forests, cities, etc.), using construction paper or other materials, and adds them to the model. Remind students that the features they create should be no more than 5 cm tall.

Group 2. Troposphere: Draws a line about 22 cm above the line made to represent Earth’s surface (22 cm represents the upper limit of the first layer); adds figures of weather phenomena (clouds, rain, lightning, etc.) as well as low-flying aircraft and hot air balloons.

Group 3. Stratosphere: Draws a line about 100 cm above the line made to represent Earth’s surface (100 cm represents the upper limit of the second layer); adds storm clouds, jet aircraft, wind, and a representation of the protection provided by ozone molecules present in this layer.

Group 4. Mesosphere: Draws a line about 170 cm above the line made to represent Earth’s surface (170 cm represents the upper limit of the third layer); adds figures of feathery ice clouds and weather balloons.

Group 5. Thermosphere: Adds spacecraft, satellites and meteors (shooting stars). The thermosphere continues for many thousands of kilometers beyond the mesosphere, so this group may use the remainder of the space on the sheet.

Group 6. Space Outside Earth’s Atmosphere: Creates figures representing other components of the solar system and universe, and places them in appropriate locations around the room.

Note: In the atmosphere model created by students, 1 cm represents 0.5 km. Based on these proportions, the diameter of the Earth would have to be drawn as approximately 25,000 cm. The sun would be positioned 300,000,000 cm away!


Funded by the following grant(s)

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

My Health My World: National Dissemination
Grant Number: 5R25ES009259
The Environment as a Context for Opportunities in Schools
Grant Number: 5R25ES010698, R25ES06932


Houston Endowment Inc.

Foundations for the Future: Capitalizing on Technology to Promote Equity, Access and Quality in Elementary Science Education