Earth Science Week Classroom Activities

Solar Updraft Tower

Activity Source:

American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Adapted with permission.

Electricity is the most common type of energy used around the world to power homes and businesses. Traditionally, electricity is generated in power plants that burn coal or oil. These resources have been used at a rapid rate and also give off greenhouse gases, which have contributed to global climate change.

Alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, are renewable energies that do not lead to an increase in greenhouse gases and are therefore more sustainable. Emerging technologies are still being developed to increase our options for alternative energy sources. In this activity you will build a solar updraft tower, a relatively recent development in alternative energy sources.


  • 2 pieces of construction paper (one black, one any color)
  • White cardstock
  • 10” wooden skewer or long dowel
  • Needle
  • Scissors
  • Clear tape
  • Thermometer
  • Small piece of modeling clay
  • Desk or heat lamp
  • Computer with internet access


  1. Roll one piece of construction paper into a cone with a 1 ½” diameter at the top and a 3” diameter at the bottom. Use tape to hold the cone shut. The cone should be able to stand on its own.

  2. Cut three notches out of the bottom of the tower, each ½” tall and 1 ½” wide.

  3. Make a propellor using the cardstock and the template found online at

  4. Place the modeling clay on a flat surface where you will be testing your tower.

  5. Use tape to secure the needle to the top end of the skewer. Insert the bottom of the skewer into the modeling clay.

  6. Place the tower over the skewer, making sure the needle sticks out about 1 1/2” above the tower.

  7. Balance the propellor on the needle with the blades bent downward, and make sure the propellor can spin easily.

  8. Measure and record the temperature inside and outside the tower.

  9. Place a lamp 2” from the bottom of the cone and observe for about five minutes. Record the temperature inside and outside the tower again.

  10. Turn off the lamp and observe for five more minutes. Record the temperatures again.

  11. Repeat using the other color construction paper for the cone.

  12. Discuss: Was there a difference between how well the two towers worked? Use evidence from your observations. What other parts of the tower could you change to affect how well it works? Why would you expect these changes to have an effect? If possible, test these changes. Explain how a solar updraft tower works, using these energy-related terms: electrical, kinetic, solar, thermal. Research more about solar updraft towers and other emerging energy technologies. Describe some benefits and drawbacks.

NGSS Connections

  • Science and Engineering Practices: Developing and Using Models,
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas: Earth’s Materials and Systems, Human Impacts on Earth’s Systems, Global Climate Change
  • Cross-Cutting Concepts: Systems and System Models, Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World

SDG Connections

  • 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
  • 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • 13: Climate Action