Teaching Earth’s Energy Budget the Easy Way

Introduce Earth’s energy budget in a way that is relevant to middle school students and help them understand the connection to the greenhouse effect.

Does your science curriculum require you to teach your students about Earth’s energy budget? Have you ever been tempted to just skip it? Maybe show a quick video because it seemed like such an abstract concept? Even worse, have you Googled the topic and started to sweat just looking at all of the graphs and charts?

Simplifying Earth’s Energy Budget

My friend, I have been in your shoes! For years, I would start to sweat just thinking of the upcoming topic. In reality, Earth’s energy budget is a very simple concept. The energy that the Earth receives from the sun must be equal to the energy radiated back into outer space. Simply put, energy in equals energy out.

Tying the energy budget to a household budget is an easy way to hook your students and help them relate.

Why You Need a Good (Clean) Hook!

First period, I made the mistake of asking my students if anyone has heard their parents use the “B” word. The look of shock on their faces, made me quickly realize that we were talking about two completely different words. They were NOT thinking “budget!”

After a good laugh, I asked my students to brainstorm two questions and write their answers for discussion:

  • What is a budget? 
  • Why is a budget important? 

This got us off to a great start talking about money and how families manage their finances.

Introduce Earth's energy budget in a way that is relevant to middle school students.
I know you’re busy, save this for later!

Analogy to Explain the “Missing” Energy

Nearly 30% of the sun’s energy never actually makes it to Earth. Since I have taught this concept previously, I knew this was a very abstract concept that is tough to understand.

This is how I make the connection:

I love to tell my students the joy of receiving my first “real” paycheck as a teacher. This was twenty years ago, back when we received a pay stub with our check detailing all of the withholdings. I explain that I was beyond thrilled to see this “huge” number at the top of my pay stub. I was shocked when I realized that was NOT the number written on my check. Enter the brainstorming…. where did all of the money go??? Surprisingly, they were quick to suggest taxes (and shockingly, a few other interesting ideas were mentioned).

This analogy was just what we needed to get started. Just like a real budget, there is some money from a paycheck that you never see. This is very similar to the energy that never reaches the Earth.

The next order of business is to brainstorm living expenses and discuss what happens when we overspend our budget. Not only is this “money in equals money out” analogy a great life lesson, but it makes a terrific segue into the diagram.

Printable Earth's energy budget worksheet available in three versions for differentiated instruction.
Earth’s Energy Budget Diagram

Making the Energy Budget Diagram Useful

Since I want this experience to be student-friendly, I created a simplified diagram of the energy budget. I also created a presentation that goes through the process step by step, so it flows like a story.

To make this diagram more useful, I have the students color code and shade the boxes. Energy that never makes it to Earth is grey. Energy that is absorbed by the Earth is yellow, and energy that is reflected back to space is red. Color coding really helps students understand the exchange of energy so that they can understand the big picture.

Earth's energy budget resources with differentiated notes

Differentiated Instruction

Our students come to us with a variety of needs in the classroom. I always make three levels of my worksheets. Level one is blank for students who are able to take notes independently, level two is scaffolded, and level three is completely filled in. My co-teacher loves having a clean copy ready for students!

These three versions allow for differentiated instruction and make the diagram accessible to all.

Save Yourself Time & Energy

Treat yourself to my ready-to-use Energy Budget lesson! I have spent years tweaking it, and this no-prep lesson is ready to use with your students tomorrow. In addition to the energy budget, you will find an introduction to the greenhouse effect. This contains a mini-lab that requires minimal supplies.

Just sit back and relax!

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