Experiential Science: Weather

My kids wanted to learn all about weather, so I cobbled together several resources to make a unit.  You may notice that we watch a lot of videos in this unit.  Not only are videos an engaging way of presenting some of the more abstract concepts related to weather (like air pressure and air currents), but my kids are thoroughly excited about watching videos related to anything at all lately, so any video I found was a win.  I tried to find a video or three (almost all short ones!) to go with each topic, but also a hands-on activity for every topic, as well.  Hopefully you’ll find plenty of fodder for exploring weather, whether you are a video-lover or not.

Much of my unit was based on this 3rd grade unit from the Williams College website, though I adapted the activities for home use.

We started our science unit by talking about water.  Since 71% of the earth is covered by water, it has a big impact on weather.  To emphasize just how much water there is on the earth, we used our big inflatable globe and tossed it from person to person, tallying how often the tip of our right thumb hit land and how often it was in water when we caught the globe.  Sure enough, we had seven “land” tallies and 18 “water” tallies.

Water Pollution Demo

Nothing we did could fully rid our water of the oil or food coloring.

While it’s a bit off-topic, the third lesson in the unit linked above was pertinent enough to warrant inclusion.  It addresses the issue of water scarcity and pollution.  With so much water on the earth, it’s hard for kids to understand why we need to be careful with it.  I gave each child a little container of water into which I sprinkled rice, pepper, a drop of oil, and a drop of food coloring.  They tried various ways to eliminate the pollution from their water sample, and then we talked about the experience.  We also talked about the availability (or lack thereof) of freshwater in various regions.  We used to live within spitting distance of Lake Michigan; that region has a very different view of water use than the Southwest, where we currently live.  The kids could easily understand why we didn’t flinch to play in the sprinkler for hours or wash our car in the driveway weekly when we lived so near a huge source of freshwater, while the visibly low water level in our local reservoir gives a clear indication of the need to be more mindful of our water usage in this home.

Next, we introduced/reviewed the water cycle using this YouTube Water Cycle Song, which conveniently also included other tidbits like cloud names.  We watched it a couple times because things stick better if you see them more than once.  The following day, we reviewed the water cycle by drawing it out and watching the video again.

Evaporation was our next highlight.  We set out dark-colored bowls with plain and saltwater to show little Pookie that only the water would evaporate.  (The saltwater also allowed another chance to review what we know about water scarcity and pollution.)  We also set up an experiment relating to heat and evaporation.  I asked the kids how the two were related and how we might test our hypothesis.  All the kids thought that heat would cause water to evaporate more quickly, and Peatie recommended putting a pan on the counter and another on the stove and seeing which evaporated the water more quickly.

Water Cycle Demo

Evaporation, condensation, precipitation on our minds… [Where are little music notes when I need them?]

Of course, to make it strictly scientific, we had to use two pans of the same size, measure the same amount of water in each, and stick a thermometer in each pan to ensure that the one on the stove did, indeed get hotter.  Within a few minutes, we could see the vapor rising from the pan on the stove; fifteen minutes later we collected our data.  The pan on the counter had not had a measurable amount of water evaporate, but the pan on the stove had doubled in temperature and held a quarter-cup of water less than the other pan.

This evaporation experiment provided a perfect time to review the water cycle and see it in action.  I grabbed an extra pan, dropped some ice cubes inside of it, and held it over the pan of hot water on the stove.  The kids were delighted to see the water cycle happen before their eyes.

Next up in our study was clouds.  Mystery Science has a really fun cloud lesson (from a weather unit for ages 7-10) that involves making a little booklet of the cloud types and using knowledge about clouds to predict what the weather will be.  (This lesson was so compelling that my kids are still applying their cloud knowledge several months later!)

Since we were talking about weather prediction–and precipitation, in particular–it seemed to be a perfect time to craft a rain gauge.  We discussed the way precipitation is measured and set out a rain gauge.  Home Depot obligingly had a rain gauge holder as their Kids’ Workshop project of the month, but you could make your own easily enough using any smallish clear container.  Either mount a ruler to your container or draw lines on it using a permanent marker.  (When a subsequent rain resulted in different readings in the different gauges, we had a great talk about how location could affect the amount of water collected.)

We extended our knowledge of clouds by looking at this information from the National Weather Service.  They provide images of the different cloud types with some descriptive text.  This weather page from UCAR Center for Science Education includes more pictures, a video intro to different clouds, and some other resource links.  Finally, this blog post from The Pioneer Woman included a printable diagram of the different types, complete with a fill-in-the-blank version, which we used to wrap up.

Another major factor in weather is wind.  We thought that Crash Course Kids had a pretty cool explanation of how wind works in their YouTube video.  Bill Nye also had a pretty neat video about wind.  (You may be able to find it on YouTube, though it’s regularly deleted for copyright infringement; our library has Bill Nye videos available for checkout.)  We tried our own demonstration to make windlike in this Mr. Wizard clip–but ours failed miserably, as per usual.

Of course, while we’re talking about wind and air pressure, we needed to make our own anemometer and barometer.  For the anemometer, we used the directions from Lesson  7B of this Williams College material.  The lesson comes complete with information on using your homemade anemometer to tell the speed of the wind.  As for the barometer, directions abound online.  Here’s one set from EasyScienceforKids.com; we didn’t use any special glue, but we did go a bit overboard on sealing our balloon by using glue, rubber bands, and duct tape–and it worked!  (A version we tried a year or two ago didn’t seem to be airtight.)  The kids were fascinated by the way that the barometer worked, and we had fun watching it for several weeks.

Of course, our study of wind and air pressure led to a bit deeper discussion of meteorology.  We watched the Crash Course for Kids videos on air currents and weather channels, and we saw this cool demonstration of fronts by The Weather Channel.  Though I wasn’t aiming for much depth on this topic, I did pull up some random weather report footage to show the kids what weather maps look like, and we talked about the different symbols used for the different fronts.

Making Weather GraphsDuring the entire month of this study, we had also been recording the weather each day.  We decided to check the temperature every day at noon and discussed why it was necessary to pick one particular time of day.  Each kid had their own printed calendar page, on which they wrote the day’s temperature and a general description of the weather–cloudy, sunny, rainy, snowy, etc.  At the end of the month, they each made a bar graph of the weather types and a line graph of the temperatures (though I gave them each a portion of the month so they didn’t have to plot all 31 points).  We even calculated the average temperature for the days each kid plotted and looked up local weather records to check out a graph of average monthly temperatures.

Our last topic for this unit was the difference between weather and climate.  Both Crash Course Kids and Bill Nye have videos talking about both this topic and about severe weather, which we also watched just because those sounded interesting.  Mystery Science also had a perfect lesson for this (“Climate, Geography, and Global Weather Patterns,” from the same unit linked above in the paragraph on clouds), complete with a world climate map to decode.

These lessons formed a perfect segue into a study of biomes and ecosystems, in case you’re looking for a next topic of study.

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