Science Experiments for High School

Science Experiments for High School

Teacher 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.

TERC Unit Labs

Building models, measuring changes, testing hypotheses…experiments are an engaging way for students to experience scientific concepts instead of just reading about them, and the following units from TERC give students a chance to learn by DIY. The units are divided into several labs or modules which delve into complex environmental science topics like hydrocarbons' high energy bondsEarth’s energy balancethe connection between air pressure and wind speed, the effect of ocean acidification on coral reefs,  sediment core analysis, and climate history and the cryosphere. These units provide easy-to-follow instructions for meaningful science experiments for high school students.


Each lab contains educator pages and student pages. The educator pages include overviews of the learning objectives, tips and ideas for student notebooks and assessments, and lists of materials needed for science activities and simple experiments. The self-paced student pages lead schoolers through a series of engaging articles, interactive comprehension questions, hands-on experiments, interactive modules, videos, maps, data tables, discussion questions, and detailed glossaries. Sections labeled “checking in”, “stop and think” and “discuss” provide questions to get students thinking critically, making connections, forming hypotheses, and solving mysteries. 

1. Climate and the Cryosphere

How much do your students know about the cryosphere? This unique unit on climate and the cryosphere consists of six earth science labs that will help students understand how and why Earth’s frozen precipitation plays such a crucial role in maintaining the climate. Below is an overview of each lab:

Getting to Know the Cryosphere

› This introductory earth science lab gives students the chance to learn about the basics of the cryosphere.

› Students conduct an interesting but easy science experiment that measures the effects of albedo.

Earth's Frozen Oceans

› Students learn about the role of cold water in the oceans and watch a fascinating video on brinicles.

 Students conduct a simple experiment that demonstrates how thermohaline circulation works.

Land Ice

› Students learn about glaciers and ice sheets and watch a video on the accelerated movement of the Jakobshavn glacier.

› An experiment using homemade silly putty shows students how glaciers move.

Climate History & the Cryosphere

› Students learn about glacial ages, Milankovitch cycles, and the important role that ice cores play in providing proxy data for climate history.

Evidence of Recent Change

› Students use an interactive tool to compare old photos of glaciers with more current photos.

› Students learn how scientists measure changes in sea ice extent and thickness to understand how the cryosphere is changing.

› Students learn about albedo feedback loops and construct their own Ice-Albedo Feedback Connection Circles.

Future of the Cryosphere

› Students learn how scientists use climate models to make predictions about the future of Earth’s climate.

› Students use the En-ROADS climate simulator to explore how manipulating certain factors produces different climate scenarios.

› Students design their own model to show how melting land and sea ice cause sea levels to rise.

ClimateSocrates Help Center Articles

2. Climate Detectives

How do scientists know about Earth’s climate history? In this engaging unit, students get the chance to join the crew of scientists onboard the JOIDES Resolution, a scientific core-drilling ship, where they will collect and use proxy data from the southern coast of Alaska to learn more about climates of the past.  Students will view real video footage of scientists aboard the ship and play the part of climate detectives as they work their way through the six interactive labs. Below is an overview of each lab:

Preparing for the Voyage

› Students begin by taking a video tour of the JOIDES Resolution and fill out a table describing each area of the ship

› A fun interactive video matching science activity helps students learn about the different scientists’ jobs and roles onboard the ship. Students view short video interviews with actual scientists.

› Finally, students learn about why the Gulf of Alaska was chosen for the voyage.

Coring is Not Boring!

› Students learn about the technology used to design the ship’s drill, and then get an engineering challenge to design and build their own model drill. 

› Students test their drills, then modify their designs to improve them.

Mountains of Ice

› Students learn about glacial activity, including the rapid depletion of polar ice and the impact it is having on the climate.

› Students learn about Milankovitch cycles and how they can change the Earth’s climate.

Climate Clues from Sand and Mud

› Students learn about types of sediments and how deposition causes dramatic changes in the landscape over long periods of time.

› Students complete a hands-on activity to explore different sedimentation rates.

› Students build models of glaciers to understand how they move sediments as they calve.

(Geologic) Timing is Everything!

› Students learn how scientists use methods such as superposition and measuring the radioactive decay in certain isotopes to date sediments.

› Using Earth History Timeline Cards, students construct a timeline of Earth’s history. After completing the timelines, students take a closer look at the Miocene epoch, the time period that the JOIDES Resolution is studying during this expedition.

Analyzing Sediment Cores

› Students learn how scientists examine core samples using a variety of visual techniques. They then examine photographs of sediment cores in order to make observations about the climate in the Gulf of Alaska during different time periods.

› Students learn how scientists use cryogenic magnetometers to measure the mineral contents of the sediment cores as well as microfossils and oxygen isotopes to further analyze the core samples.

› In groups, students use the analysis methods they learned about to analyze the sediment core. They then synthesize the data they collected and prepare a summary of their findings to present to the class.

ClimateSocrates Help Center Articles

3. Corals

Your students have probably heard that corals have been negatively impacted by climate change, but can they articulate why? This unit gives students a bounty of background information and data and then lets them discover how changes in water temperature and depth as well as the chemical composition of the water make it difficult for corals to survive. Students construct their own coral polyps and use their models for a number of hands-on demonstrations throughout the unit. Below is an overview of each lab:

Coral Reefs, the Human View

› Students watch a number of fascinating videos on coral biology and coral reef ecosystems and examine real coral samples.

Anatomy of Coral

› Students examine and observe live hydra samples using a microscope, then compare the hydra’s behavior to a video of coral polyps. Students learn about the symbiotic relationship corals have with zooxanthellae algae.

› Students build models of coral polyps that demonstrate how corals obtain nutrients.

Building a Reef

› Students do a science experiment that demonstrates how corals build their skeletons.

› After learning about how corals reproduce, students work in groups and use their coral models from Lab 2 to model coral reproduction.

Finding Coral's Ideal Environment

› Students use maps and data to determine the connection between ocean temperature, ocean depth, salinity, aragonite concentration, and coral reefs.

Factors that Impact Coral Health

 Students use Google Earth to discover how watershed pollution, salt water exploitive fishing, coastal development, and physical damage are threatening coral reefs around the world.

Using Data to Predict Bleaching Events

› Students learn about coral bleaching and work in small groups to design a way to use their coral models to show how coral bleaching occurs. 

› Students use current data from the NOAA to identify hot spots where coral bleaching is likely to occur.

› Finally, students use their new knowledge to examine data from the Florida Keys Reef to determine the impacts of climate change on the corals and how to save them.

ClimateSocrates Help Center Articles

4. Hurricanes

Does it seem like hurricanes are becoming more intense? That’s because they are! This unit helps students to understand why hurricanes are producing more rain and higher winds. With a combination of real hurricane data and tons of hands-on experiments, students will gain a deep understanding of how and why hurricanes form, and will discover what that means for the future of coastal regions. Below is an overview of each lab:

Meteorological Monsters

› The lab starts with an inquiry-based activity in which students view satellite footage and try to determine where and why hurricanes form and why there is a distinct pattern to the way they travel across the Earth.

Hurricane Anatomy

› Students learn about the Saffir-Simpson scale and how NASA uses satellites to measure the sea surface temperature and sophisticated climate models to predict the size and strength of hurricanes.

› Students compare and contrast cyclones and hurricanes.

Putting Hurricanes on the Calendar

› Students use the HURDAT2 database to understand more about the records that NOAA keeps on hurricanes, and they practice interpreting the data and looking for patterns.

› Students use data to determine when hurricanes occur each year.

Putting Hurricanes on the Map

› Students use real hurricane data to plot the course of a hurricane using Google Earth. Then, they look at where the hurricane was located when the greatest rainfall occurred. Students also look for connections in the data between the storm’s wind speed, heat source, and air pressure.

› Students use the NOAA’s site to see if their local area has been impacted by a hurricane.

All About Air Pressure

› Students rotate through a series of five stations to complete a collapsing soda can experiment, a balloon in a jar experiment, a ruler and a newspaper experiment,  an egg in a bottle experiment, and a soda bottle and ping pong ball experiment to learn about the force of air pressure. These cool science experiments can also be used by the students as their high school science fair project. 

Why Keep an Eye on the Barometer?

› Students use Hurricane Katrina as a case study and try to determine when the hurricane developed hurricane-strength winds by graphing data on air pressure and wind speed.

Hurricanes and Heat Transfer

› Students learn about how a heat source affects hurricanes by completing experiments on Adiabatic expansion and convection cells.

› Students learn how to measure the humidity in the air by building a simple wet-bulb dry-bulb thermometer. Afterwards, they build an apparatus to measure the dew point using the condensation method and compare the results of the two methods.

› Students evaluate sea surface temperature maps from before and after a hurricane and determine how much water was cooled by the hurricane.

Hot Water and Hurricanes

› Students learn about specific heat and the Gulf Stream and calculate how much energy water absorbs when it gets warmer.

Death and Destruction

› Students learn about the effects of hurricanes on people and property and discover how to prepare for a hurricane.

ClimateSocrates Help Center Articles

5. Climate and the Biosphere

How does the climate affect the world around us? This unit shows students how Earth’s systems are connected, illustrating how changes in one system can have a dramatic effect on all the others. Students will learn that climate change is real and that it is caused by human actions. Below is an overview of each lab:

Climate, Weather, and Trees

› This lab starts with students taking a walk outside to observe and identify local plants, describe clouds, and make connections between weather, climate, and the environment.

› Students graph climate data, think critically about how weather and climate affect human body as well as organisms, and have the opportunity to focus on the climate data from their local area.

Climate and Earth's Energy Balance

› Students build a model of the water cycle and complete a hands-on activity using pennies to learn about Earth's energy balance.

› Using computer models, students learn about greenhouse gases, natural and human-enhanced greenhouse effects, solar radiation, and albedo. They then complete an experiment to test the heat-trapping properties of water vapor and carbon dioxide and how they affect plant growth.

Climatology Basics

› Students learn about weather and climate patterns as well as the physical factors that influence Earth's climate. 

› Using graphics, NASA animations, and diagrams, students learn about the three levels of climate drivers and examine the differences between weather and climate.

Climate Patterns and Biomes

› Students learn about biomes and how they can be defined in part by their climate.

› Students examine maps of climate patterns and biomes around the world, then investigate the ways in which climate, topography, and biomes are related.

Extreme Weather

› Students explore the evidence supporting climate change, learn about extreme weather and climate variability, and use climate models to analyze and predict future climate conditions. 

› Students learn about climate change indicators and build a concept map to show how they are related to each other.

Trees and Paleoclimate

› Students learn how scientists study ancient climates by analyzing the isotopes of single-celled forams.

› Students complete a paleobotany experiment using pollen to gain a first-hand understanding of data collection, research, and the scientific method.

ClimateSocrates Help Center Articles

6. Climate and the Carbon Cycle

So what exactly is carbon and how is it connected to the climate? This comprehensive unit will help students understand the carbon cycle and how humans are interrupting it by burning fossil fuels. Merging chemistry experiments and chemical reactions with the topic of climate change, this unit is sure to challenge students and get them thinking critically about this essential element. Below is an overview of each lab:

Living in a Carbon World

› Students learn how trees take in carbon dioxide and store carbon as biomass, then they put their knowledge into action as they measure a local tree and calculate the amount of carbon it is storing.

› Students learn about the carbon cycle and do a chemical experiment to see how new carbon compounds form. 

› Students build molecule models to show how photosynthesis is aided by diffusion and cellular respiration create new carbon compounds and then join their molecules together to create biomolecules.

› Finally, students learn about hydrocarbons and why their bonds contain so much energy. They examine data to determine if humans are changing the atmosphere as they burn fossil fuels.

The Global Carbon Cycle

› This lab introduces students to living systems and non-living reservoirs that cycle carbon, shows them the time scales of each cycle, and teaches them about feedback loops that occur between systems. This acts as an excellent learning experience for high school as well as middle school students

› In groups, students research two carbon pathways, one slow and one fast, and make flowcharts to explain how they work.

Carbon in the Atmosphere

› Students learn about greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, infrared radiation, and how the CO₂ trapped in ice cores teaches us about historic atmospheric CO₂ levels.

› Using an interactive atmospheric data visualization tool, students look for trends and variations in the CO₂ data.

Deforestation and the Carbon Cycle

› Students explore the connections between forests and the carbon cycle, learn about the consequences of deforestation, and conduct research to track deforestation over time.

› Students learn about the reasons for deforestation and hear some personal stories from people living off of the land.

Soil and the Carbon Cycle

› Learners get to know how carbon is stored and cycled in the soil, the many types of soil bacteria growth and other microbial growth, and how melting permafrost may affect the climate.

› Students also learn about the nitrogen cycle and then design and carry out a hands-on experiment to explain the relationship between temperature and cellular respiration.

Oceans and the Carbon Cycle

› Students learn how carbon cycles in the ocean, the role of phytoplankton in the carbon cycle, and how the carbon and nitrogen cycles are connected.

Ocean Acidification

› Students learn about ocean chemistry, the effects of ocean acidification on shell-building organisms, and the effect of ocean acidification on carbon storage in the ocean. 

› Students conduct an experiment to determine whether the pH of water changes when CO₂ is dissolved into it.

ClimateSocrates Help Center Articles

Final Thoughts

These fun science experiments for high school students need to be intriguing enough to capture the students’ interest and complex enough to get students thinking critically. Students can access one of the best science experiments and put them in work for science fair project ideas. These free science units from TERC do just that. They act like science buddies that provide high-quality information and inquiry-based labs that will help students to understand the impact of climate change on the world around them. Be sure to check out all of the TERC resources on the SubjectToClimate database!

Learn About

TERC is a nonprofit made up of teams of math and science education and research experts dedicated to innovation and creative problem solving. At the frontier of theory and practice, TERC’s work encompasses research, content and curriculum development, technology innovation, professional development, and program evaluation. With a passion for social justice, TERC strives to create level playing fields for all learners, reaching more than three million students every year.