Climate Investigators: Carbon in the Atmosphere!

This is the first post in a set of Climate Investigators Summer Camp resources! In each post, I’ll outline the discussion topics, experiments, activities, predictions, and observations, as well as video and digital resources we used in each of our camps. Today, we begin with Carbon in the Atmosphere! Parents, educators, and teachers, please feel free to use these resources as you investigate the science behind climate change and its impacts around the world with kids in your community! Here is a PDF of the outline, class setup, videos, and resources. 

Experiments within the post: Rainbow Cupcake Ice Cores, Greenhouse Gas Measurements in Soda Bottles, and Take-Home Ice Core Density Columns

Introduction: What’s in the air around us?
For our first day of Climate Investigators Climate Science Camp, we started with the basics of climate change, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and how increased carbon correlates to an increase in temperature. We started off with a discussion of what actually comprises the atmosphere around us. Kids eagerly shouted out “Nitrogen!”, “Oxygen!”, “Argon!”, “Carbon Dioxide!”, and even, “Trace amounts of gasses!”. It was fantastic to hear kids talk about what they knew about our atmosphere already.

Discussion: How do we know?
Then, I prompted them with a question – “You’re right! Great job! But….how do we KNOW? How do we know what’s in the atmosphere? How do scientists measure this data? I could tell you we have Mickey Mouse atoms floating around your head, and if you can’t see them, how would you know that was incorrect?” We followed this with a discussion of atmosphere measurements, how scientists are constantly measuring the atmosphere, all around the world, looking to see what gasses are in the air, as well as what quantities there are.

They collect samples of air from high towers, aircraft, ships, and at the surface of the Earth, at various collection sites all around the globe! They collect these samples in glass collection flasks and vials and send them to labs for analyzing. After analyzing their samples with spectroscopy (this is also how we determine the atmosphere and gasses found in distant planets and stars!) and infrared lasers, they’re able to understand exactly what elements are in their samples of the atmosphere. Using samples collected all over the Earth, they’re able to build a pretty accurate picture of the composition of the atmosphere.

Okay, so we know what our atmosphere consists of now, but how can we build an accurate picture of our atmosphere over time? How do we know what our atmosphere looked like 500 years ago? A thousand, ten thousand, or even a hundred thousand years ago?

Ice Cores!
Believe it or not, scientists are able to gather accurate measurements of gasses in the atmosphere, by digging into the ground! Specifically, scientists dig deep into the glaciers at the north and south poles. If you think about the Grand Canyon, you’ll know that as you look further down through the rocks, you’re going back in time. The dirt at the surface of the ground is the youngest, while the rocks and layers far below the ground were laid down hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years ago! Glacier ice follows the same logic. Snow and ice at the surface of the ground is the newest, while layers far below the surface were frozen thousands of years ago!

CC Wikimedia Commons

Scientists use huge drilling machines to drill through the ice, and pull out a long tube of ice that can range from hundreds of years old, to hundreds of thousands of years old. Trapped in the ice are tiny bubbles that contain trapped air from that time! 

Frozen Balloons:

The night before your discussions, fill a few balloons with water, and freeze them. As you peel off the latex balloon around your frozen ice bal, you’ll see tiny bubbles of trapped air inside the ice! Pass this around to your students so they can examine the air bubbles, and relate this to the discussion of ice coring and trapped gasses.


Now it’s time to watch ice coring in action, and see how scientists can unlock the secrets of atmosphere and climate over hundreds of thousands of years!
(Video length: 3 min, 21 seconds)

Okay, so we’ve learned about how ice cores can be drilled out of the ground, but how does this relate to climate change? Scientists have found correlations between the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the rise and fall of temperature in the Earth’s climate. This video below shows the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature, and how scientists have come to these conclusions by graphing data over time.
(Video length: 3 min, 02 seconds)

Now that we’ve learned a bit about ice core drilling and the information we can obtain from it, it’s time to look through your own ice cores and gather data from the layers of your rainbow cupcake ice cores!


Materials Needed:

Rainbow Cupcakes*
Paper Plate
Plastic Knife
1 clear straw

*Instructions for rainbow cupcakes: 

Take any boxed white cake mix, and mix it according to the instructions on the box. Divide your batter into six bowls, and use food coloring to make a batches of purple, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow cake batter. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners, and spoon about 1 Tbsp of each color, going from dark to light, in the cupcake liners. Don’t stir them together, just layer them on top of each other. Bake according to cupcake instructions on the box. I use Betty Crocker Super Moist French Vanilla, and it has given the best results out of the other brands I’ve tried.

How to prepare rainbow cupcakes:

This is super easy, all it takes is some box cake mix, food coloring, a muffin tin with cupcake liners, and separate bowls for the colors. I used Betty Crocker’s Delights, in French Vanilla, and this cake mix worked the best out of the three brands I tried.

Prepare your cake batter as you would for baking a cake. Then divide your batter into six bowls. Make purple, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow batter, and add them into each muffin tin (with the liner inside!) in that order. I used about 1 Tbsp of each color. Don’t stir them in, just spoon one color layer right on top of the other. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until your cupcakes pass the toothpick test.


Kids take their super-scientific ice core drills (their straws), and plunge them straight into their cupcakes until they touch the bottom of the cake. Pull the straw straight out, and observe the ice core. Have the kids do this repeatedly through different areas of their cupcakes. The kids at our camp plunged them over and over again until they had some amazing core structures!

Once they’re finished drawing samples through the cupcakes, let the kids pull off the top of their cupcakes, and use the knife to cut their cupcakes in half. They can examine the layers of their cupcakes as a cross section of their glaciers!

Now it’s time to analyze their layers. Kids will use their markers and their paper to recreate the ice cores they drilled out of their cupcakes! Make sure they count how many times each color appears in their layer. These colors will be correlated to various additives and variables that can be found in the ice!

A note on the cupcake layers and how kids can use them:

Each layer represents one year of snowfall, while the different colors represent variables found in the ice. Count how many layers you have in your cupcakes, draw a representation of your ice cores, and determine what variables can be found in them. See if you can draw conclusions as to what may have happened, based on the additives and amounts you find.

Variable Color Chart:

Bubbles = air bubbles
Purple = dry snowfall
Blue = volcanic ash
Green = bacteria and algae
Red = dry snowfall
Orange = carbon increase
Yellow = wet snowfall

Have kids draw out the layers in their ice cores, and count how many layers of each color they find. Then relate each color to their corresponding events. Ask if they see any air bubbles, and they’ll probably talk about how small they are. The bubbles found in ice cores are super tiny too, in a very similar way! Ask if the orange colors (the carbon increase) is near the yellow colors (the wet snowfall). Ask them what they think that might mean. Are they related in any way? (Increased greenhouse gasses may lead to warmer temperatures, thus a “wetter snowfall”).

We asked kids to raise their hands if they had ever played with a super dry powdery snow that was hard to pack together. These snowfalls typically occur on cold, dry days. Then we asked kids to raise their hands if they had played with a wet snow that was easy to pack into an almost icy ball. These snowfalls are typically “heavier”, and fall on warmer days with more dense precipitation.

Discussion: Carbon Dioxide and Temperature in the Atmosphere
After looking through their cupcake cores and analyzing their data, it was time to bring home what they had learned about increases in carbon dioxide and how that can correlate to an increase in temperature. I passed around this chart that I pulled from NASA’s website. As kids looked at this chart, I asked them if they could tell me what similarities or differences they could see between the rise and fall of carbon dioxide, as well as the rise and fall of temperature. I then asked them to take a look at the end of the graph, and asked them to tell me what they were seeing in temperature and carbon rates in the atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Nasa Observatory

Observation: Greenhouse Gasses in a Soda Bottle!

The great thing about science, is that you can always test the data to see if you can come to a similar or different conclusion! We could just take these graphs and charts at face value, and trust that scientists had been testing these correlations. Or, we could test it ourselves and come to our own conclusions! With this experiment, we compared a controlled environment, to one with an increase of carbon dioxide. We observed the temperature in these environments over time, and recorded any increases we observed.

Materials Needed:

Two 2 liter soda bottles, cut in half (with caps)
2 cups of soil (one for each bottle)
Small plastic cup with 1 tbsp of baking soda
Dixie cup filled with vinegar
Duct tape
Thermometers (either small flat thermometers you can tape to the inside of the bottles, or a point and shoot thermometer to measure temperature from the outside)
Heat Lamp
Paper and pen to record observations


Cut each soda bottle in half. Fill the bottom of each bottle with 1 cup of potting soil.

In your control (this is the bottle where nothing will be done to it), slide the top of the bottle over the bottom, and tape it in place to create an airtight seal.

In the variable, place the plastic cup with baking soda on the soil. Quickly pour the vinegar into the cup and slide the top of the bottle over the bottom. Tape the bottle to create an air tight seal.

Measure the temperature of both bottles, and record the temperatures onto your paper. You can have kids create their own data tables to record the observations, or you can have volunteers come up to take the temperature and record it on a whiteboard.

Place the bottles under a heat lamp, so they are both evenly heated. After 5 minutes, record the temperatures again. Check and record again after 15 minutes, and 30 minutes. Ask the kids if they see any differences between the two bottles. Ask them what the variable was to the bottle with the higher temperature. This will further cement the relationship between increased carbon dioxide, and increased temperature.

Finally, it’s time for kids to make their own ice cores that they can take home and freeze! Kids will explore layering, density, variables, and make predictions about their ice cores before they take them home. Once they get home, kids should freeze their density columns, standing verticle in the freezer. Then, they should be encouraged to examine their cores once they’ve frozen, and draw a picture of an interesting result they found. Then they can take their pictures into class the next day and discuss their findings in group discussions!


Materials Needed:

Corn Syrup
Food Coloring
Dish Soap
Instant Coffee
Calcium Powder, Alum powder, or Cream of Tartar
Test tubes with caps
Pipettes or medicine droppers
Dixie cups for each of the liquid materials

Layer ice cores in the following order:

Corn syrup
Water and food coloring


After you pass out the cups with the liquids, talk about density. Some liquids are more thick, and denser than others. Which liquids do kids think have the highest density? Which ones do they think have the lowest density?

Have kids pour a small amount of honey into their test tubes, and then have them pour the corn syrup on top of it. Pause here, while they observe their liquids sitting on top of each other. Some kids talked about how they’ve seen this in salad dressings and sauces at home. This is a great time to talk about the different densities they might see around them!

Have the kids use the pipettes to pour water on top of the corn syrup. Add a drop or two of food coloring, and let them observe how it falls. Does the food coloring fall through all of the layers, or just into the water?

Have the kids carefully layer the soap, using another pipette, and pour it slowly down the side of the container. This will allow the soap to form a nice smooth layer on top of the water.

Finally, have the kids add another small amount of water on top of the soap, using the pipette to pour it slowly down the side of the test tube. Once they’re finished, let them add a small pinch of the solid materials into their columns. Have them observe which layers they fall through, as well as any interesting formations as they fall through the column!

The kids in our climate camp had a blast with these activities! It was a great way to learn about the atmosphere around us, as well as how scientists are able to study the makeup of our atmosphere over thousands of years. With the data collected from ice core drilling, scientists can build an accurate model of the climate over time, as well as any changes that have occurred due to events like volcanic eruptions, meteor impacts, changes in the acidity of the atmosphere, and increased greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. With the rainbow cupcake cores, kids really understood how the layering of cupcakes, just like the layers of bark in a tree ring, can give us an idea of the age of the ice that we’re looking at. They were also able to relate how variables in the atmosphere could trigger effects in a global climate. Of course, they also loved the cupcakes because they were delicious! We had plenty extra on hand so the kids could eat them once they were done with their ice cores.

Finally, they loved the ice core density columns! Kids brought in drawings the next day that described the atmosphere, and the effects of greenhouse gasses in trapping UV rays beneath it. They also looked for ice bubbles in their cores, and several of the kids even brought their frozen ice cores into class the next morning so they could show off their fascinating observations!

Of course, the idea of testing out our information with the greenhouse bottle experiment was also fun for the kids. They took great joy in trying to validate the data they were seeing, by tracing the steps of scientists all around the world with utilizing the scientific method to verify these claims! By asking the kids to volunteer to come up to record temperatures and write the observations on the board, they became even more invested in the project we were doing. In fact, by the time we had reached the last day of our camp, most of the kids remembered everything we had talked about and done with ice cores on day one! It was a great way to set the tone of the week, with climate change, its impacts, how we can measure changes in the atmosphere, and how we can measure the effects and come up with solutions to decrease these impacts.

We finished off our day with discussing the carbon cycle, and different ways carbon dioxide is used in the world. It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom, plants use a lot of it to fuel their energy to grow with photosynthesis! The only way it becomes a problem, is when we start seeing amounts so large that the natural carbon cycle can’t balance it out. This is what we’re seeing now with huge increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as huge increases in other greenhouse gasses. Kids came up with ways they could reduce their carbon footprints on the world, and in their communities, by discussing energy usage, carpooling, and coming up with ways to use renewable energy in their lives!

Now that we’ve learned about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses, it’s time to start seeing how the effects can reach beyond the atmosphere! Next up, we’ll tackle Ocean Acidification with chemistry, biology, and renewable energy!

Teachers, educators, and homeschoolers can find an easy outline to these experiments and resources here. Here is a PDF of the outline I used for summer camp, for quick and easy setup, and the chronological order of discussions, videos, and planned activities. Feel free to use them in your classrooms, homes, and communities!

Happy Exploring!

Leave a Reply