Greenhouse Effect Teaching Box

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Greenhouse Effect

Greenhouse Effect Teaching Box This teaching box provides resources related to the greenhouse effect. It will help you teach how the greenhouse effect works, and how it prevents Earth from becoming a frozen ball of ice, and why there is too much of it happening today.

UCAR Center for Science Education Teaching Boxes are themed collections of classroom-ready educational resources to build student understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Resources highlighted within teaching boxes are from various science education programs and all have been vetted by the UCAR Center for Science Education team.

  • Topic: The Greenhouse Effect
  • Level: Middle and high school
  • How to use this resource: Select resources below that are best suited for your students to meet the learning goal. Resources are sequenced to build student understanding.

The Greenhouse Effect

Goal: Students will learn how greenhouse gases temporarily trap heat within Earth's atmosphere, warming our planet via the greenhouse effect.

Activity: Students explore the greenhouse effect through computer simulations and then dive deeper learning how the greenhouse effect works via readings and videos online.


Ask your students what they have heard about the greenhouse effect. Ask them to explain whether

Greenhouse Effect Diagram

they think it is a good or bad thing. Lead a short class discussion around this topic.

Without any greenhouse effect, Earth would be an inhospitable, frozen ball of ice. However, too much greenhouse effect, caused today as we burn fossil fuels, is warming our climate rapidly and causing numerous other problems.


The two simulations or virtual labs described below allow your students to explore the greenhouse effect by doing simple "experiments" within computer-based models.

  • Encourage your students to determine the basic relationship between the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and temperature (more greenhouse gases = higher temperature).
  • You may also want to suggest that your students pay careful attention to:
    • the different behaviors of incoming photons of visible light as compared to outgoing infrared longwave photons
    • the interactions between photons and greenhouse gases
  • You can use these simulations in a whole-class setting with a SmartBoard or projector, you can have students work with the sims in small groups in class or in a computer lab, or you can assign these activities as homework.
  • Allow 5-15 minutes of class time to explore either of the simulations described below.
  • The simulation by the Concord Consortium uses HTML5 technology, so it runs on tablets as well as computers. The PhET simulation uses Java, so it will not work on most tablets and requires Java to work on computers. PhET is currently converting their large library of simulations to the HTML5 format, so you might want to check back on the status of their Greenhouse Effect simulation.

PhET - The Greenhouse Effect

This Java-based interactive was created by the PhET project at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which has dozens of science education simulations.

  1. Go to PhET's "The Greenhouse Effect" page and either run or download (then run) the simulation.
  2. Select the "Adjustable concentration" option in the "Atmosphere during..." section on the right side of the screen.
  3. Use the "Greenhouse Gas Concentration" slider control to vary the amount of greenhouse gases; observe the effect on temperature.
  4. Set the greenhouse gas concentration to "Lots", then observe the behaviors of the yellow photons representing sunlight and the red photons representing infrared emissions from Earth. Follow the paths of several photons of each type and report any differences you notice. [Yellow photons pass through atmosphere unimpeded. Many red photons get redirected back downward as they encounter greenhouse gases.]

The Concord Consortium - What is the Future of Earth's Climate?

This HTML5-based interactive is embedded in a lesson module created by The Concord Consortium, a non-profit educational research and development organization based in Concord, Massachusetts.

  1. Go to the "What Is the Future of Earth's Climate?" lesson module on The Concord Consortium's web site.
  2. Click the "Launch Activity" button.
  3. Click the link to lesson 3, "Interactions within the atmosphere."
  4. This lesson has six sections. You can click the small circles in the upper right to navigate to any of the sections. The greenhouse effect simulation is embedded, in a few slightly different forms, in several of the lesson segments.
  5. We suggest you use the version of the simulation embedded in section 2 of the lesson, since it includes graphs of temperature and carbon dioxide concentration.
  6. Click the "Erupt!" button several times to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Observe the effect on temperature.
  7. Click the "Remove CO2" button a bunch of times to remove most or all of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Observe the effect on temperature.
  8. Use the "Follow energy packet" and "Follow CO2" buttons to focus in on individual photons and gas molecules to better understand their behaviors.


Have students explore resources that explain how the greenhouse effect works. Most of the resources listed below are videos or animations; a couple are annotated slide shows or readings.


Here are some assessment items about the greenhouse effect, as well as an answer key:


Explore the learning resources below for more about the greenhouse effect and energy in the Earth system.

Earth’s Energy Budget


Next Generation Science Standards:

  • NGSS Science and Engineering Practices: Developing and Using Models; Analyzing and Interpreting Data; Constructing Explanations
  • NGSS Crosscutting Concepts: Energy and Matter; Stability and Change; Systems and System Models; Cause and Effect; Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
  • NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas: 
    • MS-PS3.A, HS-PS3.A Definitions of Energy
    • MS-PS3.B, HS-PS3.B Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
    • MS-ESS2.A, HS-ESS2.A Earth's Materials and Systems
    • MS-ESS2.D, HS-ESS2.D Weather and Climate
    • MS-ESS3.D, HS-ESS3.D Global Climate Change
    • MS-ESS3.A, HS-ESS3.A Natural Resources
    • MS-ESS3.C, HS-ESS3.C Human Impacts on Earth Systems