What are the layers of the atmosphere? Can your middle school science students answer this question? I like to think about the layers of the atmosphere as a foundation for many other science topics. Just like teaching the layers of the earth prepares students to learn about plate tectonics and the rock cycle, learning the layers of the atmosphere prepares your students to understand weather and the Earth’s connection to space.
The History of Earth’s Atmosphere
A fun way to hook your students and get them excited about learning the layers of the atmosphere is by sharing the history of Earth’s atmosphere. During the Hadean Eon, right after the Earth first formed, the atmosphere was mostly hydrogen gas. Then, volcanic eruptions filled the atmosphere with nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide. Everything changed 2.4 billion years ago when cyanobacteria started photosynthesizing and pumping vast amounts of oxygen gas into the atmosphere as a waste product. Oxygen was toxic to most of the life on Earth at the time, and there was a massive extinction event. Luckily for us, making energy is more efficient with oxygen, and the life that did survive was able to grow and develop, leading to the life we see on Earth today.
Layers of the Atmosphere
Of course, not all of the atmosphere is uniform. The atmosphere has layers with unique properties that you will want your students to know. What are the layers of the atmosphere? The troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and exosphere.
Weather happens in the troposphere. Teaching weather after the layers of the atmosphere helps students connect weather to existing neural networks. The stratosphere is above the troposphere. Jets fly at the top of the troposphere or the bottom of the stratosphere. The mesosphere is above the stratosphere. Scientists know the least about the mesosphere because it is too high for weather balloons and too low for satellites. Most people would consider the thermosphere a part of outer space. The International Space Station and other satellites orbit the Earth in this later. The exosphere is the outermost layer of the atmosphere. It does not have a definite ending but dissipates into space. A slow leak in the exosphere releases several tons of gases from the atmosphere into space every day, but don’t worry. We have millions of years before Earth’s atmosphere is depleted.
Teaching the Layers of the Atmosphere
Like all science topics, a model is incredibly helpful for teaching students about the layers of the atmosphere. You can have students draw a model of the layers of the atmosphere in their science notebooks, or you can provide them with a model they can label. If you are feeling ambitious, you can add the model of the layers of the atmosphere to your students’ existing models of the layers of the Earth.
Videos are another way to teach your students about the layers of the atmosphere. I like to use both videos and information texts to teach science concepts because I think students benefit from both. Videos give students the background knowledge they need to understand the information text, and the information text strengthens their reading skills for further scientific study.
I love teaching using information texts because students can refer to them repeatedly to clarify their thoughts or check their accuracy. I love using the information texts I create because I always think of science holistically and do my best to point out connections to other scientific concepts. Students see how everything in science is related. I love helping students build their neural networks!
Connecting the Atmosphere to Other Science Topics
My favorite part of teaching the layers of the atmosphere is its connection to space. Aren’t all kids fascinated by space? It is crazy, and thinking about the vastness of space helps us all see that the universe is so much more than our small lives. Teaching your students about the thermosphere and the exosphere is your opportunity to bring the fun. Astronauts on the ISS do so many great videos. Plus, can you say astronaut ice cream. I am all about finding ways to bring food into the classroom.
If space is your next topic, you have the perfect transition. If not, that’s okay. Your students will be primed to learn about space when it does come up.
Whether you teach weather, space, or the human body next, you will be able to relate it back to the layers of the atmosphere. For example, did you know that our atmosphere scatters sunlight from the Sun? The shorter wavelengths scatter more easily than the longer ones, so the sky should look bluish-purple. It only looks blue because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light than purple light. Crazy right? I love science!
Are You Teaching Another Science Topic?
I am working on creating more science units so that every science teacher can get exactly what he or she needs for her students. You can also read about how I use brain science to teach other science topics on my blog. Click the pictures below to learn more.