Academic journal article Science Scope

Studying Storms to Understand Weather

Academic journal article Science Scope

Studying Storms to Understand Weather

Article excerpt

Who isn't awed by the power, beauty, and destructive capabilities of a hurricane, tornado, or snowstorm? Storms are one of those topics that nearly all students are interested in, and by capitalizing on this interest and focusing on the big idea behind storms, educators can teach weather in a meaningful and motivating way.

More traditional ways of teaching weather focus on learning meteorological terms such as precipitation, evaporation, condensation, and fronts with only a few days at the end of the unit to explore storms. In contrast, the five-week unit described here deliberately and actively highlights interesting or surprising aspects of weather, namely storms. Weather vocabulary, concepts, and processes are taught in the context of hurricanes, lake-effect snowstorms, and tornadoes. This often includes showing remarkable pictures or videos, giving astounding statistics, and reading dramatic firsthand accounts. Rather than a typical inquiry unit, this curriculum engages students in social construction of their understandings of weather in small- and large-group discussions, as well as a significant amount of exploration of weather concepts using online simulations, animations, and other resources.

The big idea

A big idea is different from a concept or fact in that it represents the essence of a science topic--the most fundamental understandings. A big idea should be broad enough to connect to other important ideas in science and not limited to specific content, while at the same time, it should be simple to understand and succinctly explain a scientific process or phenomenon. These big ideas should be themes that drive our curriculum.

Traditional weather units tend to emphasize collecting and compiling data from direct observation and weather reports and learning specific meteorological terms and processes. What is lost in such an approach is the basic understanding of why weather occurs and what it does. The big idea at the center of this weather unit is that weather is the movement of energy. This big idea, which is similar to the way meteorologists think of weather, provides an overview for truly understanding what weather is and why it exists. It can be empowering for students to look at a phenomenon like weather--something most students think can't be understood or explained--and realize that the whole process can be summed up in one sentence.

Storms and the movement of energy

Given that weather is the movement of energy, in creating my unit I wanted to focus on the most interesting ways in which energy is moved, namely storms. In my seventh-grade class we focused on three kinds of storms--hurricanes, tornadoes, and lake-effect snowstorms. Hurricanes and tornadoes were chosen because they're enormous, dangerous, and in the news. Living in Michigan, lake-effect snowstorms seemed a natural pick to help students understand the science behind their snow days. Also, and perhaps most importantly, each storm is a vivid representation of the big idea--weather is the movement of energy. While I picked these three, any storm in which you can easily see the movement of energy, particularly if it is significant in your region, will work.

The weather unit

It would be nearly impossible to detail here the day-by-day progression of this unit. Instead, I will highlight aspects of the unit that are likely to differ from the way weather is typically taught. As previously mentioned, teaching with a big idea at the core of the unit is one difference; the other is the structuring of the curriculum around storms.

I broke the unit up into four main components: (1) introduction of the big idea; (2) hurricanes; (3) lake-effect snowstorms; and (4) tornados. Each part of the unit is briefly detailed in the accompanying chart in terms of concepts, activities, and resources. Specific weather terms (i.e., front, air mass) can be integrated in multiple places throughout the unit when teaching storms, but in the following paragraphs I mention where I included them. …

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