10 Climate Change Lab Activities 

10 Climate Change Lab Activities

You might not be able to remember many lectures from your 8th-grade science class, but I bet you can recall at least one lab activity or experiment! Learning by doing can provide a more memorable and meaningful learning experience for students. You can make your climate change lessons come alive with these 10 climate change lab activities. SubjectToClimate provides a summary of each climate change lab activity, tells you which standards the activity addresses, and offers teaching tips so that you can feel confident even if teaching about climate change is new to you!

Let your students discover first-hand why ocean acidification is so harmful to marine animals, or how much ozone is in the air they breathe. Let them prove to themselves why melting sea ice and melting land ice have different effects on sea level rise or let them try their hand at desalinating water. Whether you are looking for a quick and easy experiment or a more complex project, this list of climate change lab activities for grades 3-12 will provide you with the resources you need to get your students thinking and learning.

Ocean Acidification in a Cup

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Biology

Resource Type: Experiment

Did you know that as we burn fossil fuels and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the oceans are becoming more acidic? This ClimateScience lab activity uses vinegar, seashells, and a cup to show students how acid breaks down seashells, leaving the marine animals inside vulnerable. The resource provides tips for teaching, a short article for students on ocean acidification, and links to more information.

This simple lab activity takes very little prep and uses easy-to-find materials. Students will be impressed by how quickly the acid breaks down the calcium carbonate in the seashells. Teachers can use this activity to teach about the pH scale, biodiversity, ocean ecosystems, or chemistry. Consider showing this video on ocean acidification after students have seen the results of their lab activity, and extend the lesson by asking students to think about how humans can reduce carbon emissions and protect marine life.

Amazing Albedo

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Physics, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Type: Worksheet, Experiment

We’ve all heard that climate change is causing the ice in polar regions to melt, but why does that matter? One reason melting ice matters is the albedo effect. Large expanses of ice reflect sunlight, keeping temperatures cooler. When the ice disappears, temperatures rise more quickly. In this lab activity from the American Museum of Natural History and Rice University, students will make a hypothesis about heat absorption and reflection, perform an experiment, record their data, and analyze their results.

You won’t have to convince your students of the importance of albedo, because they will be able to see how it works for themselves! The lab activity uses black and white construction paper, a heat lamp, and thermometers to show students that ice reflects heat while dark soil absorbs it. The resource includes a chart for recording data and a number of thought-provoking questions for lab groups to use as they reflect on the results of the activity. One of the best parts of this lab activity is that it is completely mess-free! 

This lab activity is a great way to integrate climate change topics into physics lessons on light waves and color. Pair this activity with this video on albedo feedback loops to show students as melting polar ice is caused by rising global temperatures, this melting simultaneously causes a greater increase in global temperatures.

Desalination Exploration

Grade: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Computer Science & Design Thinking

Resource Type: Lesson Plan

This full lesson from SubjectToClimate brings students' attention to the fact that only a very small fraction of water on Earth is potable fresh water. As climate change continues to make dry places even drier, water scarcity is a growing concern. Some people believe that desalination might be an answer to water scarcity. Students will learn about different desalination methods and then have the opportunity to build their own solar still to see desalination in action.

This resource is perfect for the teacher who wants to bring engineering concepts into the classroom but doesn’t have time to create an entire lesson from scratch. The lesson takes a real-world problem, water scarcity, and shows students how engineers, scientists, and government leaders can work together to find the best solution. Students will also see firsthand how solar desalination uses condensation and evaporation to remove salt from water.

Because this lesson combines elements of science, engineering, and even geopolitics, it can be used in a variety of classes. Teachers can choose to have the class create one solar still or have students work in groups to create their solar stills. Groups can challenge themselves to produce the greatest amount of freshwater in the shortest amount of time by thinking about variables such as the amount of direct sunlight (location and time of day) or the size or shape of the bowl and/or the cup.

Climate Change in Your Own Backyard

Grade: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Earth and Space Sciences, Geography, Engineering, Computer Science & Design Thinking

Resource Type: Lesson Plan

In this mini-unit from the National Center for Science Education, students draw connections between extreme weather events and climate change on global and regional scales. The lessons include interesting activities, such as a loaded dice activity that shows students how climate change affects the probability of more extreme weather. The unit culminates with a lab activity in which students design, build, and test a model of a sustainable neighborhood that will avoid the urban heat-island effect. Teachers will need to assemble a number of less common materials such as flex seal liquid, kinetic sand, and an infrared thermometer for the lab activity.

This mini-unit provides detailed teacher guides, student handouts, Jamboards, videos, and instructions for activities. Students will learn about the wildfires in Australia, view and analyze maps and terms related to extreme weather events, and explore region-specific extreme weather.  Students will use the information they learned in the lessons to inform their urban designs as they work collaboratively to create a neighborhood that can remain cool amidst rising global temperatures and population increases.

The unit includes a number of activities designed to take six class periods. Individual teachers can pick and choose from the activities, or teachers from different academic disciplines can collaborate to teach aspects of the unit in different classes. For example, the prerequisite student knowledge activity is to write an extreme weather autobiography or reflection paper, which could be done in an ELA class, while geography classes could use Part A as a stand-alone activity to engage students in creating and interpreting maps. Math classes could expand on the data collection and analysis from the activities. 

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Airplanes and Climate Change

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Earth and Space Sciences, Math, Engineering

Resource Type: Lesson Plan

This lesson from the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative teaches students about greenhouse gasses, the albedo effect, and the impact of aviation on climate. In the lab activity, students will have a chance to test how heat affects the temperatures of three substrates, dark soil, sand, and water.  The resource includes a worksheet, a graphing exercise, discussion questions, and a podcast episode.

This climate change lab activity shows students how an increase in greenhouse gasses produced by industries such as the aviation industry leads to a myriad of problems for the environment. Students will learn about the nuances of the albedo of contrails, or condensation trails produced by airplanes, and see how these can deflect and trap heat. The lab activity and subsequent questions give students a chance to see how and why albedo is an important element to consider as global temperatures continue to rise.

This well-designed lesson can be delivered exactly as it is written, or teachers can choose to have students listen to the podcast episode independently before the lesson. Similarly, the articles at the end of the lesson can be read in groups in the classroom, or students can complete the readings after the lesson and write brief summaries of the articles.

Is Ice, Ice Baby?

Grade: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Type: Lesson Plan

Did you know that not all melting ice contributes to sea level rise? That’s right, melting sea ice can cause problems for the environment, but it is not a major contributor to sea level rise. This lesson from ACE teaches students about the differences between land ice and sea ice using an easy lab activity that will let students see for themselves why melting sea ice does not cause sea levels to rise. The activity requires easy-to-find materials such as plastic containers, modeling clay, ice cubes, and water.

This lesson includes two youth climate story videos that give students a personal perspective on how global warming and sea level rise affect people’s lives. The videos will help students to connect the scientific concepts in the lab activity to the real-life crisis of sea level rise caused by climate change.

Older students will be able to follow the directions for the lab activity and create their own land ice and sea ice models, while younger students may need assistance to make sure that the setup will demonstrate the phenomenon properly. Teachers could also use the lab activity as a class demonstration.

How Does Temperature Affect the Solubility of CO2 in Water?

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Type: Experiment

It’s no secret that the oceans help absorb carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. In fact, oceans are considered to be carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide that would otherwise end up trapping heat in the atmosphere. But did you know that the temperature of ocean water affects the amount of carbon dioxide that the water can absorb? This lab activity from CarboSchools shows students how the temperature of water affects the solubility of carbon dioxide in the water. Using a 500 ml graduated cylinder, a funnel, a Petri dish cover, a transparent basin or an aquarium, a stand and clamp, ice cubes or cold water, a water heater or warm water, and effervescent tablets (e.g, Alka-Seltzer), students will collect data on the carbon dioxide absorption of cold water and warm water.

Sure, teachers can tell students that warm water absorbs less carbon dioxide than cold water, and most students would probably believe it, but how many students would truly understand or even remember the concept after a few weeks? This experiment will show students how the temperature of the water affects carbon dioxide absorption and gives them space to draw their own conclusions about what that means as oceans around the world continue to get warmer.

In order to understand the concepts behind this lab activity, students should be familiar with the carbon cycle. If they need a refresher, this short video will help them understand the role that oceans play in sequestering carbon. If you want to extend this lab activity, consider integrating this lesson plan on the ocean and climate change.

Infrared Detection of Carbon Dioxide

Grade: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Physics, Earth and Space Sciences, Math

Resource Type: Experiment, Worksheet

Carbon dioxide absorbs infrared energy; this is important because carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gasses, keeps the Earth’s temperatures appropriate for life. However, as humans burn fossil fuels and release higher levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, infrared energy absorption starts to change. In this experiment from the Paleontological Research Institution, students will build a testing chamber and perform an experiment to measure the amount of infrared energy that carbon dioxide absorbs. Students will record and graph their data and discuss the relationship between what their data shows and what is happening to our planet.

Even though this lab activity addresses challenging concepts, the concepts are presented with clear and detailed explanations. Chemistry, biology, and physics classes can utilize this experiment for lessons about waves, energy, the electromagnetic spectrum, ocean acidification, the greenhouse effect, and global warming. Teachers can pair the activity with this video on infrared radiation absorption

Field Testing for Ozone

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Earth and Space Sciences, Health

Resource Type: Experiment, Worksheet, Lesson Plan

We need ozone in the stratosphere to protect us from the sun’s radiation, but when ozone is in the troposphere it causes air pollution and presents health risks for people. In this experiment from the EPA, students will test the levels of tropospheric ozone present in the air. Students will perform the experiment, analyze their data, and learn about ways to reduce tropospheric ozone.

Unlike some experiments in which students have to use specific materials to produce a final product, this resource gives students the chance to test the level of ozone in the air they are actually breathing! When students realize that the air they breathe each day is affected by increased ozone, they will be more invested in trying to fix the problem.

Before using this lab activity, consider having your students watch this Khan Academy video on stratospheric ozone depletion and read this article on low-level or tropospheric ozone from the American Lung Association. Discuss why ozone is both crucial to protect us from radiation in the stratosphere and dangerous when it is in the troposphere. Science classes could also explore the reasons for potentially higher levels of ozone during warmer or sunnier weather.

Uptake of Carbon Dioxide from Water by Plants

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Biology, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Type: Experiment, Worksheet, Lesson Plan

The oceans are an important carbon sink that helps sequester excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While this is important and helpful, it can also change the ocean ecosystems when water becomes more acidic. Luckily, aquatic plants can help mitigate some acidification caused by excess carbon dioxide in ocean water. This resource from Carboschools provides instructions for two hands-on climate change lab activities.

The first experiment tests the impact of Cabomba fronds on the pH level of a water sample. This experiment compares the pH of two water samples containing Cabomba fronds - one in a clear container that allows for photosynthesis, and one in a container covered with foil to block light. A water sample without Cabomba fronds serves as the control for this experiment. The second experiment tests the impact of phytoplankton on the pH level of two water samples - one containing phytoplankton and one without phytoplankton. Both samples are exposed to light. Students measure the pH levels in both samples in 1-minute intervals over 10 minutes. 

This resource gives teachers the option to choose one of the lab activities or to complete both activities. The instructions are easy to follow and include helpful photos that show each step of the procedure. By middle school, most students have a general understanding of photosynthesis, but they are rarely given the chance to observe how plants take in carbon dioxide. These lab activities provide students with a memorable experience that also serves as evidence that plants absorb carbon dioxide. After completing the lab activities, students can watch this video from NASA on the role that phytoplankton plays in the ocean ecosystem. Students can reflect on how excess carbon dioxide might interrupt the balance of the ecosystem or the carbon cycle.

Nothing engages students quite like a hands-on lab activity. Teachers know that when students walk into the classroom and see beakers, thermometers, plants, powders, and liquids the questions start pouring in: “What are we doing with this?” “Do we get to use these today?” “Can I open this?” “Eew, what’s that?!” These climate change lab activities are sure to hook your students and keep them focused and learning throughout the lesson. For more activities and experiments be sure to check out SubjectToClimate’s resource database.

About the Author

Emily has a bachelor’s degree in English and French and a master’s degree in library and information science. She spent seven years teaching information evaluation and research skills as a school librarian in K-8 public schools. As a lifelong resident of Southern Louisiana, Emily has a particular interest in how climate change affects coastal regions. She hopes to connect educators with resources that will help them to teach their students about the disproportionately adverse effects of climate change on historically marginalized communities.