When educators introduce and review energy transfer, we use visible examples like convection tubes or melting wax on the end of a metal wheel. When we apply energy transfer to weather and climate, the transfer is invisible and often intangible for students. Once we discovered how to make energy transfer visible and tangible, students quickly began making connections and considering applications of energy transfer.
This past summer, I attended a climate workshop hosted by UCAR/NCAR in nearby Boulder, Colorado. During a session on gamifying the classroom, I was introduced to a model of the atmosphere that finally made the transfer of energy visible and tangible.
The premise of the game is that students move chips representing energy between the layers of the atmosphere to demonstrate the movement of energy throughout the atmosphere. This was exciting to experience as a learner as well as at teacher. I was ready to try this game out in the classroom! After implementing the model in Earth Science class, my students left more confident about:
- Approximate day and night temperatures in each layer of the atmosphere,
- How energy moved in the atmosphere, and…
- How energy transfer affected weather and climate.
Gamifying Energy Transfer in the Atmosphere
This model was originally created by the Little Shop of Physics at Colorado State University. The materials are currently being shared by the UCAR Center for Science Education. I included the documents created by the Little Shop of Physics below. I also recommend that you check out the UCAR website for additional information and videos of how the model works.
The detailed explanation of how the model functions including the 3-pages of game boards for Earth’s surface, Lower Atmosphere, and Upper Atmosphere.
A brief, 2-page introduction to the game. This is the best document to use when introducing the model to colleagues or getting started yourself.
Optional arrows to simplify the movement of chips between layers during each turn.
Pre-Game: Preparing Your Energy Transfer Game
Before you actually play the game with your students, you need to get supplies and a plan for game day to help things run smoothly.
Choose Game Board Pieces:
- Choose a token for students to move around the game board. My team ordered 2 sets of 1,000 blue bingo chips from Amazon for around $23.00. Wooden chips look nicer and are easy to pick up, but will be more difficult to store, and more expensive to replace if they are lost or broken.
- Choose a vessel for storing the tokens and distributing to students. We chose Dixie cups that were already in our store room.
- To play or demonstrate how to play this game on your front board, purchase magnetic circles to act as energy chips on the model.
Determine Your Game Setup
How large will your groups of students be?
I chose groups of 3 so one student could focus their attention on shifting energy for one layer of the atmosphere. One student in each group represented one of the following: Earth’s surface, lower atmosphere, and upper atmosphere.
Are you going to use the energy flow arrows?
I would recommend trying to play through the game with and without the arrows. Then consider whether your students would need them to work through a turn successfully; my 9th graders did!
Print out your game board set up.
We chose to print the layers of the atmosphere game boards, and to use the energy flow arrows except for the arrow going to space. Some students would just leave chips there, making it look like energy was accumulating in space. This is a misconception I did not want to create or perpetuate, so eliminating the space arrow forced students to immediately move chips back to the Dixie cup.
To laminate or not to laminate?
If you are using the blue bingo chips, laminate! They slide easily across the laminated pages but are a challenge to pick up one by one. With bigger wooden tokens, this might not be necessary. However, it was cheaper to laminate 20 game boards with arrows for cheap bingo chips than to buy wooden tokens.
Finally, play the game with a family member, friend, or colleague before instructing your students how to play. The first round will feel clunky, but getting the hang of it at home will make it easier to assist and encourage your students when they feel stuck.
Game Time! Turning the Energy Transfer Model into a Lesson
I set up a handout with directions, a data table, and questions to help guide students as they collected, processed, and applied information about energy transfer.
Keep it short and sweet! This is one of those moments where students will get the hang of it by actually playing the game, not by reading the instructions over and over. By the time the second or third turn starts, my students were in a grove.
The Data Table
The data tables featured on the UCAR website include students recording the number of squares filled by energy tokens. This is perfect if you want students to graph the energy in each layer over time. However, my goal was for students to see and touch energy transfer so I created a visual data table from the game board sheets. Instead of counting the squares filled by tokens, my students just shaded in the areas in each layer filled by tokens.
Each visual data table has 12 turns per sheet, perfect for alternating 3 day and 3 night turns, or for 6 day turns and 6 night turns. In addition to being visual, the data table shows the layers of the atmosphere in a spatially accurate way. The layers in the data table are stacked vertically with energy moving up and down from Earth’s surface to the upper atmosphere. This is in contrast to the game board where energy shifts horizontally across layers rather than vertically through stacked layers.
Questions to Consider
In addition to making energy transfer visible and tangible, this game can also encourage students to think like a scientists by considering patterns and making meaning of data. I included an entire page of questions focused on making meaning of the differences between daytime and nighttime turns, as well as where energy was located, how it shifted, and the methods of energy transfer that occurred.
I also wanted students to think about making predictions within the model. To this end, I included questions about how the eruption of a major volcano like Krakatoa might impact the model or how they might add another game board to represent the stratosphere in addition to the upper and lower troposphere.
Energy transfer was a topic students had struggled to apply to the atmosphere in the past. After this game, they showed significant improvement in their discussions as well as on their unit assessment. After scoring the unit assessment, 83% of students showed mastery, 13% of students were near mastery, and only 4% needed remediation!
Considerations for Future Game Iterations
The Energy Transfer Game was a nightmare to set up with individual students who were absent. Next year, I will plan to capture a video of one group going through all 12 turns and put it on my website. Students will get a similar visual experience and be able to record data without the time-consuming task of completing the turns for all 3 layers by themselves.
In the future, I’m interesting in applying this model to new content like the greenhouse effect or seasons variations in the original directions. This model could also demonstrate ozone depletion if you purchased a multi-colored pack of bingo chips to represent chlorofluorocarbons, ozone, and oxygen particles.
Get your supplies ready and try gamifying energy transfer with your students this year! I would love to hear…
- What other lessons or activities do you use to engage students in understanding energy transfer as related to weather and climate?
- How did this game work in your classroom? What worked well and what did you change? I would love to hear from other educators about this activity!