Monday, November 26, 2007

Teaching: more on weather journals

John Fleck asked for more info about my weather journal exercise. Here it is.

Every semester, I end Earth Systems Science by talking about weather and climate, and instead of giving quizzes, I make the students keep a weather journal.

Here's what I ask them to do:

1. (3 points) Keep a journal of the weather that occurs for the next three weeks. Every day, record:

➢ maximum and minimum temperatures (temperatures at Durango airport are available from the National Weather Service)
➢ clouds -- how much of the sky is covered (as a percent), what types of clouds are present
➢ precipitation -- does any occur? In what form (rain, drizzle, snow, hail, etc.)? Is it continuous in time or space, or does it occur as showers? How much falls?
➢ wind -- speed (qualitatively) and direction
➢ any other interesting phenomena

Detailed weather observations from the Durango airport are available at . You may use the NOAA observations as a source, but I would also like you to include your own observations.

2. (2 points) Explain the weather patterns you observed. Check out weather discussions at the National Weather Service web site ( for information about national and global weather patterns.

Why do I do it that way? Well, mostly because that's what I brainstormed the first time I taught the class. But I wanted to create an assignment that would get the students to look at the world around them, and think about what they were learning in class, and connect them together. So when they wake up in the morning and see this:

... they have some idea why there is frost on the car windows but not on the house windows (as was the case at my house on Saturday). Or so, when the smoke from the Durango-Silverton train hangs down in the valley on a cold morning, they realize that they're seeing a temperature inversion.

And I didn't want to make the assignment too complicated - I didn't want them to need access to a barometer, or for them to get up in the middle of the night to measure the temperature.

So does it work? Well, it's hard to say. A few students make great, detailed observations. Other students do the bare minimum. And it seems like it's pretty hard to connect the local observations to bigger picture questions - I would need to have them look at the National Weather Service web site daily, or something.

I also hope that the weather journals will give me some concrete examples of things to discuss in class. I started class this morning (on humidity and the dew point and ways that clouds form) with a picture of frost on my car, and we talked about that (and about the experiences of students who have grown up in more humid climates with a lot of dew). We still didn't end up talking about some of the more interesting things I saw over the weekend, such as the fog that formed at dusk on Friday, after the sun had started sublimating the new snow. (I think - though I'm not certain - that I was seeing something like the crazy freezing fog that Albuquerque had last winter, when the snow sublimated and raised the relative humidity near the ground, and then the cold air near the ground condensed it into fog.)

This morning, however, I asked how many students had described frost in their weather journals. Only a couple students raised their hands. So it doesn't seem like most of them are paying very close attention. They've got a few more days, though, so maybe their observations will improve.


John Fleck said...

Thanks. And hmmm. Looks like a mixed bag.

One of the advantages my project may have is that no one's going to be forcing the kids to do it.

What of the idea of having them actually check a thermometer themselves rather than getting the data from the web - so they experience the number as they are recording it?

Kim said...

I would rather have them check a thermometer themselves, but I ran into a problem of where and how to have them do that. A lot of the students didn't own thermometers, and I didn't have access to enough in the department to check them out. And then there's the question of when to measure the temperature - each student has a different schedule, so I didn't want to choose a particular time myself, but the time of day made the biggest difference in the temperature they measured. For a long time, I had them measure the temperature however they could - bank thermometers, thermometers hanging from a jacket zipper, whatever. But the measurements varied too much from day to day for the students to say much about what they observed.

I think checking the temperature themselves would work a lot better for kids living at home. (We've got a thermometer mounted outside our kitchen window, and we probably aren't the only people who do.) Plus middle school kids tend to have much more regular schedules (at least on school days) than college students do - they could measure temperature every morning, or at dinner time, or when they get home from school.

CJR said...

Perhaps most of the students didn't consider frost as 'weather'?

Kim said...

Perhaps they didn't, Chris. (I didn't take a picture of the snow that fell the day before... I was too busy taking the 4-year-old outside to follow deer tracks around. :) )

And maybe the combination of the weather journal and discussing the weather during class helped them make a connection between frost and clouds and snow.