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published by the Physics Education Technology Project
supported by the National Science Foundation
written by Greg Van Houten
Available Languages: English, Spanish
This page features an inquiry-based lab, created by a high school teacher for use with the PhET simulation Greenhouse Effect. The author gives explicit instructions for using the simulation to conduct an experiment. The experimental question: "Which atmospheric gas -- methane, water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, or nitrogen -- is the best absorber of infrared photons?"
Students will be using the "Photon Absorption" section of the simulation, in which they shoot infrared and visible photons from a virtual emission gun. They can change and adjust levels of each gas to build their own atmospheric conditions. A comprehensive rubric is included.

The related simulation, which is required to complete this activity, is available from PhET at: Greenhouse Effect Simulation.
This item is part of a growing collection of simulations by the Physics Education Technology Project (PhET).  Simulations were designed using principles from physics education research and refined based on student interviews and classroom observations.

Please note that this resource requires at least version 1.5 of Java Applet Plug-in.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Classical Mechanics
- Work and Energy
= Conservation of Energy
Education Practices
- Active Learning
= Inquiry Learning
- Technology
= Multimedia
Other Sciences
- Environmental Science
- Geoscience
Thermo & Stat Mech
- First Law
- High School
- Informal Education
- Instructional Material
= Activity
= Best practice
= Interactive Simulation
= Student Guide
- Assessment Material
= Rubric
Intended Users Formats Ratings
- Learners
- Educators
- application/ms-word
- application/java
- text/html
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Access Rights:
Free access
This material is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. Additional information is available.
Rights Holder:
University of Colorado, Physics Education Technology
climate, climate change, global warming, greenhouse effect, heat, infrared, infrared absorption, infrared radiation, photon absorption, photon emission, thermal radiation, thermodynamics
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created October 15, 2011 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
August 18, 2016 by Lyle Barbato
Last Update
when Cataloged:
June 15, 2011
Other Collections:

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

3. The Nature of Technology

3C. Issues in Technology
  • 6-8: 3C/M9. In all technologies, there are always trade-offs to be made.
  • 9-12: 3C/H4. The human species has a major impact on other species in many ways: reducing the amount of the earth's surface available to those other species, interfering with their food sources, changing the temperature and chemical composition of their habitats, introducing foreign species into their ecosystems, and altering organisms directly through selective breeding and genetic engineering.
  • 9-12: 3C/H5. Human inventiveness has brought new risks as well as improvements to human existence.

4. The Physical Setting

4B. The Earth
  • 9-12: 4B/H4. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor, are transparent to much of the incoming sunlight but not to the infrared light from the warmed surface of the earth. When greenhouse gases increase, more thermal energy is trapped in the atmosphere, and the temperature of the earth increases the light energy radiated into space until it again equals the light energy absorbed from the sun.
  • 9-12: 4B/H6. The earth's climates have changed in the past, are currently changing, and are expected to change in the future, primarily due to changes in the amount of light reaching places on the earth and the composition of the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels in the last century has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has contributed to Earth's warming.
  • 9-12: 4B/H9. Although the earth has a great capacity to absorb and recycle materials naturally, ecosystems have only a finite capacity to withstand change without experiencing major ecological alterations that may also have adverse effects on human activities.
4E. Energy Transformations
  • 6-8: 4E/M3. Thermal energy is transferred through a material by the collisions of atoms within the material. Over time, the thermal energy tends to spread out through a material and from one material to another if they are in contact. Thermal energy can also be transferred by means of currents in air, water, or other fluids. In addition, some thermal energy in all materials is transformed into light energy and radiated into the environment by electromagnetic waves; that light energy can be transformed back into thermal energy when the electromagnetic waves strike another material. As a result, a material tends to cool down unless some other form of energy is converted to thermal energy in the material.
  • 6-8: 4E/M6. Light and other electromagnetic waves can warm objects. How much an object's temperature increases depends on how intense the light striking its surface is, how long the light shines on the object, and how much of the light is absorbed.

8. The Designed World

8C. Energy Sources and Use
  • 6-8: 8C/M5. Energy from the sun (and the wind and water energy derived from it) is available indefinitely. Because the transfer of energy from these resources is weak and variable, systems are needed to collect and concentrate the energy.
  • 6-8: 8C/M11. By burning fuels, people are releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and transforming chemical energy into thermal energy which spreads throughout the environment.
  • 9-12: 8C/H6. The useful energy output of a device—that is, what energy is available for further change—is always less than the energy input, with the difference usually appearing as thermal energy. One goal in the design of such devices is to make them as efficient as possible—that is, to maximize the useful output for a given input.
  • 9-12: 8C/H7. During any transformation of energy, there is inevitably some dissipation of energy into the environment. In this practical sense, energy gets "used up," even though it is still around somewhere.
  • 9-12: 8C/H8. Sunlight is the ultimate source of most of the energy we use. The energy in fossil fuels such as oil and coal comes from energy that plants captured from the sun long ago.
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Record Link
AIP Format
G. Van Houten, (Physics Education Technology Project, Boulder, 2011), WWW Document, (
G. Van Houten, PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab, (Physics Education Technology Project, Boulder, 2011), <>.
APA Format
Van Houten, G. (2011, June 15). PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab. Retrieved December 18, 2017, from Physics Education Technology Project:
Chicago Format
Van Houten, Greg. PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab. Boulder: Physics Education Technology Project, June 15, 2011. (accessed 18 December 2017).
MLA Format
Van Houten, Greg. PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab. Boulder: Physics Education Technology Project, 2011. 15 June 2011. National Science Foundation. 18 Dec. 2017 <>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Greg Van Houten", Title = {PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab}, Publisher = {Physics Education Technology Project}, Volume = {2017}, Number = {18 December 2017}, Month = {June 15, 2011}, Year = {2011} }
Refer Export Format

%A Greg Van Houten
%T PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab
%D June 15, 2011
%I Physics Education Technology Project
%C Boulder
%O application/ms-word

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source
%A Van Houten, Greg
%D June 15, 2011
%T PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab
%I Physics Education Technology Project
%V 2017
%N 18 December 2017
%8 June 15, 2011
%9 application/ms-word

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PhET Teacher Ideas: The Greenhouse Effect Lab:

Requires PhET Simulation: The Greenhouse Effect

A link to the Java simulation Greenhouse Effect, which must be running in order to complete this activity.

relation by Caroline Hall

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