Weatherwise Learners

By Eve Pranis

"Because my seventh graders were interested in exploring how the climate differed throughout our region, we found e-mail pals at a school in another part of the state and brainstormed a weather-related growing project," reports Lostant, IL, teacher Jean Smith.

Her students decided to plant the same species of daffodil in containers outdoors in late fall, then keep track of weather data at both sites. If they were to track the effect of weather/climate, the kids reasoned, they would have to keep other factors, like the depth they buried the pots in the soil, the same.

With the daffodil bulbs in place, students began to examine factors responsible for weather differences between regions. For instance, by using a flashlight and a ball to explore how the sun strikes the earth in different regions, they began to grasp how an important factor -- latitude -- can affect day length and temperatures. The class also kept weather data for their garden area: temperature, humidity, and wind speed. "We made anemometers (wind meters) using milk jugs, paper cups, and straws, then created our own scale to describe how windy each day was," explains Jean. "If the colored cup passed by one to three times a minute, we'd call it a light wind, four to six revolutions would mean moderate winds, and so on," she adds.

Each small group of students collected data daily, then the class averaged the readings before plotting and graphing them on the computer. "Students began to notice that changes in the humidity or in speed and direction of wind sometimes preceded other weather changes. The kids then wondered if they could predict those changes," Jean explains. Internet research yielded information on how forecasters use such information to predict shifts in weather.

As students tracked the weather in their bulb-planting area, then compared it with local reports, they discovered some significant discrepancies. "When I challenged students to think about why our site was so different from the rest of our region, they had some interesting ideas. One was that the brick building surrounding our garden courtyard might trap and hold more heat and offer wind protection, for instance," reports Jean. This spurred them to test their hypotheses by taking readings in parts of the schoolyard they thought might have different microclimates.

As students continue to track weather information, they exchange it with their e-mail pals. Together, the classes have begun to make hypotheses about how weather and climate will affect the timing of the bulbs' flowering. Once bulbs have bloomed, students hope to review and analyze the weather data to determine what factors affected plant growth.

"This project has inspired my kids to be much better at observing the environment and sifting through data from their classmates and e-mail peers," says Jean. "They're especially fascinated by noting the range of changes that take place in the spring and fall, then imagining what's happening to their bulbs," she explains. Sixty-degree winter temperatures in Chicago sparked concern about the bulbs being fooled into blooming early, for instance. This prompted a debate about the ways in which El Nino might affect their precious plants.

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