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The Science of Weather by Eileen Hynes

Windsocks in the Upper Primary Classroom. 

The children at Lake and Park spent the month of December engaged in careful and systematic observation of the weather. Weather affects us all. It informs what clothes we wear to school, if we bring boots or not, or even what games we play at the park.

In the summer of 2014 I applied for a grant through the NOAA Climate Stewards Education Program.  I had begun working with the Climate Stewards the year before, participating in monthly Webinars with national and international scientists, and monthly regional meetings to discuss science and climate education with other teachers. 

On January 13, 2014 Peg Steffen, of the National Ocean Service, presented a talk titled “Misconceptions and Conceptual Change”.  Prompted by recent research on student misconceptions as well as the desire to improve science education in the United States she informed us that. “A new study finds that what’s especially critical to improved science learning is that teachers also know the common misconceptions students have.”

 At Lake and Park teachers work collaboratively to provide relevant and accurate thematic studies which address both student questions and their scientific interests.  Common misconceptions, according to Stephen include:

• That weather and climate are the same

• That the sun goes around the earth

• Seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

Primary students explore snowflake designs with the Frobel materials.

As it turned out, December was the ideal month for us to focus on these misconceptions.  The Beginning Class moved into a study of Space inspired by the Native American legend, “ Her Seven Brothers”, retold and illustrated by Paul Goble. The students learned about major star constellations, the planets in the earth’s solar system, and the important role the sun plays. Through poetry, music and dance the children acted out the planets spinning in the solar system, orbiting around the sun. As each child in turn played the role of the sun, they stood firmly fixed in one position as other children went spinning around them.

Students gathered weather data daily.

The Primary, Upper Primary and Intermediate Classes began keeping weather observation charts on December 1. The goal was to have students record the daily temperature over a period of weeks and then graph the data alongside data provided by the National Weather records that show daily averages for the same period of time. This task was a concrete way to engage students in understanding the difference between weather and climate. Along the way many other topics and interests were discussed and discovered. Every class read many books on related weather topics, includingStars beneath Your Bed: the Surprising Story of Dust, by April Sayre, andWeather and Climate: How Weather Works, by Robin Birch.

Journal entry.

The hydrologic cycle, or water cycle, was discussed and illustrated throughout the grades. Many students played a water molecule game to experience the various forms water takes and to understand that water cycles through the planet in many different ways.

With temperatures the first few mornings of December greeting us at -3 or -4 Celsius, the Primary Class quickly became focused on the formation of ice crystals. They asked each other questions about how the ice forms, and how the crystals attach to each other. They were introduced to the concept of ice core research; this raised many more questions about how scientists know: for example, how our knowledge of paleoclimate is based on ice core studies. The Primary Class will be touring the ice core lab at the University of Washington in January and meeting with scientists there. As part of this unit the primary children learned about the geometry of snowflakes, They built sculptures out of ice inspired by the art of Andy Goldsworthy, and  read about Yupik and Inuit people who call the far northern regions home.

The Upper Primary Class took daily walks as part of  honing one of the major skills of meteorologists throughout history, that of observation. As they practiced using their senses to observe and then worked to translate these observations into weather reports, the students began to fine-tune their observations, building vocabulary to more accurately express what they were seeing and feeling.  Why are clear days in the winter colder then days with more cloud cover?  Can we tell which way the wind is blowing?  This group wrote winter haiku, experimented with pinwheels, and created windsocks.

Students at all levels worked to collect data and then graph that data and analize it in a meaningful way.

The Intermediate Class worked extensively with data during December; both weather data collection and graphing, as well as tracking and comparing the varried journeys different water molecules made through the water cycle. The complexity of the questions being asked increased throughout the month. (Further research and investigation into what makes wind and how clouds change shape will be included in ongoing studies.)  The Intermediate Class looked at a graph of the average temperature in the US over the last one hundred years, revealing that a warming trend is occurring over extended periods of time.  Students worked together to explain the role the tilt of the axis plays on earth’s changing seasons and we acknowledged the approaching winter solstice.

Students worked to understand various components of the weather station through drawing. 

During the last week of class before winter break, students were introduced to the school’s new weather station. Having collected data using thermometers and sensory observations students were excited to figure out what data each component of the weather station was designed to collect. Everyone agreed collecting data in January was going to be much easier with our new equipment. Students in the Upper Primary Class and the Intermediate Class will be visiting the NOAA National Weather Station in Seattle in January to learn from the scientists working there about weather data collection, forecasting and other careers in related scientific fields.

The three major misconceptions identified by Peg Steffen were addressed in various ways throughout the classes at Lake and Park, all during the month of December. Because each of these concepts is complex,  students’ understandings will continue to shift in and out of focus and grow in clarity as children and knowledge both develop.  The confidence a child has in his/her own ability to think and reason scientifically is established through the kinds of activities and discussions that we engaged in so actively this month. Such activities play a key role in bringing clarity to complex realities. As Chloe said after she raised her hand to share an explanation with her class of why it is colder and darker in the northern hemisphere in December, “I know I know this!”  and she did.

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