Coriolis Effect and Atmospheric Circulation Lab

I love it when I hear kids say “whoa”, or “wow” or “ohhhh, now I get it” during a lab. I recently did the “Coriolis Effect and Atmospheric Circulation” Carolina Investigations Lab for AP® Environmental Science and these were the reactions from students. It was a successful lab with good student directions and questions. The lab took about 45 minutes.

Teachers’ manual with my notes and hints for next year.

Students have a difficult time with atmospheric concepts and this lab helps students understand convection cells, coriolis effect, and how winds are created. There are a few hints that I learned along the way which I described below.

Supplies

The kit is a little pricey, but the materials will last for year. It comes with supplies for 8 groups of students. I have 9 groups and it was easy to source the extra supplies from Amazon (click the item for the link to buy). I needed one additional turntable (lazy susan) which was inexpensive, one more overhead marker, another pie pan, and one more blow up globe. For next year, however, I am going to have 1-2 extra globes to spare as one got a hole in it first period and a couple extra pie pans they often get leaks as well. The kit comes with white globes–which are better, but harder to find spares. My extra globe wasn’t white, but it worked fine.

Supplies needed for each group of students.

You also need some basic lab supplies: two 100ml beakers per group, food coloring, ice and warm water. I used an electric kettle to heat up water for labs. One small pack of ice from the grocery store was enough for 5 classes–45 groups of kids.

Pre-Lab

The lab comes with a 4 page reading that is rather difficult text for students. Instead, I did atmospheric science drawing notes with my students one day before the lab. They used these notes to help them with the pre-lab questions.

I only made copies of the Pre-lab questions and lab questions for students. I did not use the reading/non-fiction text and made a class set of the procedure (called “guided activity”) to save paper.

Turntable

Students begin by using the turntable to try to draw straight lines while another student turns the turntable. I had to show kids an example of what their circle paper should look like at the end, because I had kids making swirls as they didn’t read the directions carefully. I told them to keep moving the pen and try to draw a straight line.

Student sample.

Convection Fluid

Convection is difficult to show in the lab. This apparatus worked fairly well. Students were able to see the food coloring sink near the ice cold beaker and rise near the hot beaker. I had to tell kids to fill the beaker with as much ice as they could and I made the water very hot in the electric kettle. Kids also had to wait a few minutes for the food coloring to move which is difficult for them to do. I let them gently move the food coloring if they were behind other groups. The lab recommends putting the food coloring in the ice beaker for a while which is a good tip.

Ice beaker and hot beaker in a pan of room temp water from the tap. Convection shows up pretty well with food coloring.

Globe

In the last part of the lab, students use the turntable again with the globe. They map how the Coriolis Effect deflects air and creates winds using the marker on the globe. They did not fully understand what was happening until I had to tell them to think of the direction of the wind and it diverts to the right in the northern hemisphere. So looking down on the globe, the air traveling south from the north pole would divert right–which is to the west. But if you looked at the globe straight on, it appears to turn left. Once they viewed the air and globe in this way, they finally got it.

Using the blow up globe and turntable

For more AP Environmental Science Labs, go to this page.

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