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Modeling Earth's Atmosphere

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

Let's Talk About It

In this activity, students discover that Earth’s atmosphere consists of several concentric layers of gases, each with different characteristics and component parts. Lead a class discussion about each layer, starting with Group 1 (Earth’s surface). Have each group name the atmospheric layer it modeled and identify the objects typically found within that layer. 

For example, Group 1 may have included mountains, rivers, trees, houses, animals, and cities located on Earth’s surface. Meanwhile, Group 6 (outer space) may have drawn or added objects such as the moon, other planets of the solar system, etc. 

When conducting the class discussion, expect a variety of answers and observations, and pose questions that encourage students to think. You might ask, What objects are found on the surface of Earth? What layer of the atmosphere contains rain and lightning? What are the third and fourth layers of Earth’s atmosphere? and In what atmosphere layer did the space shuttle fly?


  • In general, temperature decreases with altitude. Exceptions occur in layers where energy from the sun is absorbed.
  • Reductions in the amount of ozone in the stratosphere are allowing more ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun to reach Earth’s surface.
  • The effects of some kinds of UV exposure are cumulative and may not show up for many years.
  • In humans, increased exposure to UV radiation (especially UV-B, with wavelengths between 290–320 nanometers) is linked to skin cancer, the development of cataracts and effects on the immune system.
  • UV-B radiation also is toxic to plants, including crop plants, and phytoplankton, which forms the basis of marine food chains.

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