Satellite image of clouds over the Indian Ocean

Engingeering design process diagram


Overview

In this lesson, students learn about different cloud types and the associated weather they may bring -- putting themselves in the shoes of NASA's Cloudsat mission team as they were developing an important Earth-observing satellite. This is a great opportunity for students to ask questions and it teaches them strategies for making observations about the weather. By learning how clouds can be used to predict weather, students can better understand when severe weather may be coming.

As a lesson extension, students can be lead through the engineering design process. By identifying areas in the school affected by inclement weather, students will define a problem they would like to change or correct. They can brainstorm solutions to help ease the impacts of severe weather and then build, test and redesign their solution to make improvements.

Materials

Management

This lesson can be taught independently, or it can serve as a springboard for class participation in the Students' Cloud Observations On-line (S'COOL) citizen science project throughout the school year. If you would like to participate in S'COOL observations, you'll need to register here.

Background

Vocabulary:

  • Cloud Types:

    • Cirrus - high feathery clouds that usually mean a change in weather is on the way

    • Cirrostratus - thin, sheetlike high clouds that often cover the entire sky, but allow the Sun and Moon to shine through

    • Cirrocumulus - a high-altitude cloud, usually occurring at 16,000-40,000 feet. Like other cumulus clouds, cirrocumulus clouds signify convection. Unlike other cirrus clouds, cirrocumulus include liquid water droplets, although these are in a supercooled state. Ice crystals are also present, and typically, the ice crystals cause the supercooled water drops in the cloud to rapidly freeze, transforming the cirrocumulus into cirrostratus. This process can also produce precipitation in the form of a virga consisting of ice or snow. Thus cirrocumulus clouds are usually short-lived

    • Stratus - low, gray clouds that may have very little variation; layered, featureless clouds

    • Cumulus - a white cloud often described as "puffy" or "cotton-like" in appearance, cumulus clouds may appear alone, in lines, or in clusters

    • Altocumulus - a mid-level cloud that has individual cloud elements or heaps of clouds

    • Stratocumulus - these low clouds are a mixture of layered (stratus) and puffy (cumulus) portions. Sometimes they consist of small cumulus bands lined up in neat rows

    • Nimbostratus - low-level clouds that cover the entire sky with broad sheets, and that produce steady rain of low to moderate intensity with no thunder and lightning

    • Cumulonimbus - a type of cloud that is tall, dense, and associated with thunderstorms and other intense weather

    • Contrail - condensation trail; cloud formed due to the exhaust of jetaircraft

  • Dichotomous key - a written list or series of steps that will eventually lead you to the positive identification of an object, e.g. species of animal or cloud type

Procedures

  1. Use a class warm-up to spark interest in cloud observation and the role it plays in weather forecasting. Choose from one of the suggested books in the materials list or use one of your own.

  2. Using the online or printed S'COOL Cloud Identification Chart, introduce cloud types, reviewing the vocabulary list based on your students' developmental level.

  3. Distribute the Dichotomous Key Handout. Take the time to mention the meaning and purpose of a dichotomous key and explain that scientists use this type of tool in many different contexts. Field guides are often written in this format.

  4. Take the class outdoors to begin cloud observations, as well as temperature and pressure measurements. Students should work in teacher-guided groups or as a whole-class group to complete the Dichotomous Key Handout and the S'COOL Cloud Observations Report Form.

  5. Return to class and continue the class discussion based on the observations. Allow students to question one another about the observation session.

  6. Have students check their own data sheets for accuracy.

  7. The observation step of this lesson can be completed for several days in a row or throughout the year if you are interested in extending the activity and tracking temperature, pressure and/or cloud data over time. 

Discussion

  • Ask students what types of clouds they typically see in the area.

  • Have students discuss whether their local area is dry or rainy in the summer or winter, or any other seasonal patterns they might have observed.

  • If continuing the observations over time, ask students to identify patterns they see, such as temperature patterns, pressure patterns associated with cloud types, or cloud types that appear during certain times of year.

Assessment

  • Collect observation data from students to regularly make observations and report back to the S'COOL website.

  • Create individual or whole-class graphs to display data recorded over time.

  • Keep a weather journal to log weather data.

Extensions

  1. In small groups or as a whole class, students will identify areas in the school affected by heavy rains, high winds, intense heat or sunlight.

  2. Students will define a problem they would like to change or correct. They will have ask questions, make observations and gather information to define the requirements of what they want their solution to do (e.g., keep areas from becoming flooded, or limit the amount of heat or sunlight reaching an area).

  3. Brainstorm solutions to help meet the requirements identified in Step 2 to change or correct a problem, such as designing or improving sandbags to divert water away from foot traffic areas, creating door stops to prevent doors from catching in the wind and swinging too far open, or developing a cover that will protect an area from rain or intense sunlight and heat. Keep in mind these do not have to necessarily be high-tech materials. A sheet of cardboard in plastic or a bag filled with sand may do the job.

  4. Design a solution to meet those requirements: Students can draw or build a model to represent what their solution will do. As a class, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas.

  5. Build the solution and test it to see if it diverts water, holds doors in place, etc.

  6. Change the design to improve its performance.