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AIR & 

climate change

Activity 6 (Explore): Atmosphere in a Jar

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Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this activity, students investigate what the most common elements and compounds in the atmosphere are by digging into an atmospheric “soup” of molecules. They use ratios and proportional reasoning to relate the finding from their investigation to the atmosphere as a whole.

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 45-60 minutes



  • Students will know what gases make up Earth’s atmosphere and in what proportions

  • Students will use sampling and quantitative analysis to estimate the composition of a mixture


Materials (see activity for details on these materials)

  • One apple (any kind)

  • Apple peeler (optional)

  • Beans for Atmosphere in a Jar (see teacher handout)

  • Chart paper & markers (optional)

  • One large, clear container

  • Small cups – enough for one per student group

  • Calculators

  • Atmosphere in a Jar Teacher Guide

  • Computer & projector





  • Atmosphere in a Jar activity sheet

  • Atmosphere in a Jar summary questions (optional)

Standards Connection

SEP: Analyzing Data; Using Mathematics & Computational Thinking

CCC: Patterns; Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

To Do in Advance

Gather the materials and setup the “Atmosphere in a Jar” activity. See teacher handout for additional details.



Show students the apple, and tell them to imagine that the apple is the Earth. If so, how big would the atmosphere be? (ex. would it extend out for 1”, ½”, etc.)

  1. Answer: the atmosphere is the thickness of the apple’s skin (you may choose to peel a piece of skin to show how thin it is)

  2. When reviewing the answer with students, show them a photograph of Earth from space (such as the one below) to highlight how thin the atmosphere is.


The Blue Marble.jpg

1. Frame the Activity

Remind students that the greenhouse effect is caused carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. In order for them to understand the problem of having too much carbon dioxide, they need to know more about what gases are in the atmosphere. Today they’re going to study the atmosphere so they can understand how carbon dioxide affects the planet.

2. Fact or Fiction: Gathering Students' Ideas

Prepare a piece of chart paper (or a place on the board) to record student responses. Then ask them: what do we already know about the atmosphere of Earth? Record each answer on the board where all students can see. If students get stuck, prompt them with questions such as: “What do you think the atmosphere is made of?”, “Is the atmosphere clean or polluted?”, or “Where do the gases in our atmosphere come from?”

  • Don’t tell students which statements are accurate or inaccurate, just focus on letting them share


When students are finished sharing, tell them that you will come back to this list later as a class to see which statements we made about the atmosphere are actually facts and which are fiction.

Differentiation: If students are reluctant to share ideas in front of peers, have them write their answers on sticky notes or note cards. Make sure to get at least one answer from each student to support participation. You can also have students brainstorm first in groups, or have them write out a list before sharing.

Step 4

3. Atmosphere in a Jar

Follow the directions in the Atmosphere in a Jar teacher guide (see Teacher Guide in Materials).

4. Atmosphere in a Jar Follow-Up Questions (optional)

Use the Atmosphere in a Jar follow up question handout to help students think more about the process of sampling, the importance of using multiple samples, and why percentage is useful measurement when considering composition of a mixture.

Modification: The follow-up questions for this activity also work well as a homework assignment.

5. Formative Assessment

Let each student choose one fact or fiction from the list that has been decided. Have them write a short answer telling whether it is a fact or fiction, and supporting their answer using evidence from the activity. For example, if the “fiction” is “Our atmosphere is mostly oxygen” a student might write “Our atmosphere is mostly oxygen is fiction. Our atmosphere is only 21% oxygen. It is mostly made of nitrogen (78%).

Next Steps: If you plan to do the “How Much is a PPM” activity next, make sure to have students return their samples and keep the Atmosphere in a Jar nearby.

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