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Sustainability Lesson Clearinghouse

Absorbing Sunlight in Different Colored Soil Surfaces

Lesson Description:
Student will conduct an activity to identify the effects of solar energy on our planet and its systems by observing how 3 colored soils absorb sunlight differently.

Eco-fact: Solar energy plants are found where there is a high concentration of unobstructed sunlight. The photovoltaic solar energy plant scheduled for completion in 2011 at Deming, New Mexico, will be 300 megawatts; 15 times larger than the largest solar power plant in the world.

Before conducting absorption of solar energy activity:
  • To demonstrate the effects of solar energy on our planet, students must understand that components of the earth system absorb sunlight differently.
  • Radiation from the sun is a source of energy for many cycles in the atmosphere, oceans and land of the earth. Heat and light from the sun help plants, animals, and humans to thrive. however, air, land, and water reflect and absorb energy differently. This affects many of the earth’s systems such as weather patterns, ocean currents, winds, and temperatures. The amount of energy absorbed by the surface of the earth and the temperature of the surface of the earth both dependent upon the the structure and composition of their surfaces. the lighter the color of the surface, the more light is being reflected, lighter colored areas like deserts or clouds reflect more energy than darker colored areas like ocean surfaces or forests.

Procedures to conduct absorption of solar energy activity:
  • Explain to students that the white sand represents the clouds and snow; the black soil represents the land (forest, green grass); and the grey gravel represents the ocean or dead grass.
  • Place sand, gravel, and soil in the three glass bowls. each material will be in a separate bowl.
  • Insert one thermometer just below the surface of the sand, gravel, and soil.
  • Leave the containers in sunlight for several hours.
  • Observe and record the temperature of each material after several hours in the sunlight.

After conducting activity:
  • Discuss real life applications of this principle. for example, snow cover keeps a region colder that it otherwise would be or why the air above asphalt parking lots is warmer than the air above concrete ones under the same conditions.

  • Older students can learn about the albedo of a surface,a measure of the percentage of radiation striking the surface that is reflected back into space.

Lesson Type:
  • Experiment
  • Project

Sustainability Topic:
  • Energy
  • Gardening

GEF Program Category:
  • Green Energy Challenge
  • Green Thumb Challenge

Time Needed:
15 minute set up and observation time several hours later
Materials Needed:
  • White sand
  • Black potting soil
  • Light grey gravel
  • Three thermometers,
  • Three clear glass bowls

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