Making the Climate Connection: Resources and Learning Progressions for Teaching Students about Weather and Climate Change

By Larson, Bruce | Science and Children, April-May 2010 | Go to article overview

Making the Climate Connection: Resources and Learning Progressions for Teaching Students about Weather and Climate Change


Larson, Bruce, Science and Children


Climate change is a challenging topic to address in elementary classrooms, but the need to prepare our students grows daily. Fortunately, learning about climate requires observation, data collection, math analysis, graphical interpretation, and geography skills. These are not static skills but tools that can be used in learning science throughout the K--12 experience. Not only will these skills help students develop their understanding of climate change, they'll also be useful in addressing science challenges that students will face in the future. As an Earth Science educator for nearly 30 years, I've come to consider weather and climate as two distinct but developmentally linked curricular strands. This article presents classroom resources for teaching both topics along with background resources for teachers who want to beef up their own knowledge in the subjects. In addition, I'm proposing learning progressions--one for weather and one for climate--that teachers can use to guide their instruction.

Learning progressions are based on research. These bodies of knowledge identify the order in which students can best learn and understand science concepts over a broad span of time. Each learning progression provides a description of successively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic, such as weather. To make this work, instruction must be coordinated and teachers need to collaborate when they construct learning experiences. Since learning progressions are long term, teachers at each grade level should be involved in the planning and instruction of each concept. The progressions described here are synthesized from some of this research (AAAS 1993; Keeley 2005; NRC 2007; Wiggins and McTighe 2005) and from training I received as a docent at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire. I envision the progressions as springboards for school, district, and statewide realignment with the latest scientific thinking on climate. I don't know of any current research efforts underway to establish learning progressions for weather and climate, and I would welcome input on the progressions I share here.

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Resources for Teaching Weather

Weather is generally considered the entry point for developing the skills necessary to begin integrating the complexities of climate, and the first step in any weather study is to generate interest in the topic and encourage awareness of it. At my current posting in a K--5 school in Stratham, New Hampshire, students at every level participate in weather studies. Kindergarten students record the hours of daylight to track the seasonality of sunlight; first-grade students study states of matter and snowflakes; second-grade students connect weather to biome studies; third- through fifth-grade students monitor weather conditions and present daily "Weather Team" bulletins during morning announcements, and fourth- and fifth-grade students track hurricanes in the fall, using tracking charts available from the National Weather Service (see Internet Resources). The hurricane study enables teachers to introduce geography and math concepts as well as physical science concepts like convection, water cycle, and energy transfer.

Another resource that gets students involved in studying weather is the NASA S'Cool project (see Internet Resources), a program in which upper elementary and middle school students ground truth (a process of verifying data on the ground with sensors in space) the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) satellite data of cloud cover.

Another great opportunity for direct student involvement in weather observing is through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), a citizen reporting system (see Internet Resources). CoCoRaHS uses simple but accurate equipment to measure all forms of precipitation, and the reporting is easily done through the CoCoRaHS website.

Having a weather station at the school can be a real asset in teaching weather. …

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