MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Cloud Inquiry Investigation & I.D.

Cloud Inquiry Investigation & I.D.

Suzanne Bot, Kimberly Lane Elementary School, Plymouth, MN, based on an original activity from Windows to the Universe Teacher Resources
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In this earth science experiment, students are given a chance to explore the properties of clouds. They will investigate the idea that clouds can be formed when certain conditions are present. They will also write about what happens when they create their own cloud in a jar. Students will diagram and write about specific types of clouds.
They will also track the types of clouds they see in the sky over a week or two and record them in their science notebooks. They will make a graph of the most common cloud types observed over the two week period.

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Learning Goals

Students will be able to describe and create an experiment to indicate that a cloud will form under specific conditions. Students will be able to observe clouds to learn about cloud types. Students will also be able to diagram cloud types and synthesize their ideas by writing about their cloud observations. In addition, students will analyze their graphed data. Students will also be able to link clouds to the water cycle and water collection on earth.

Context for Use

This activity is best suited for grades 3-5, but could be modified for higher or lower levels. This is a lab activity paired with a classroom discussion as well as outside observation. The time period is 1-2 class periods. These activities would be appropriately placed as introductory lessons on clouds and the water cycle. Students should not need prior knowledge on the concepts.

Subject: Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Meteorology:Clouds and precipitation
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity, Field Activity, Lab Activity
Special Interest: Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Weather, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Atmospheric Science

Description and Teaching Materials

This is a hands-on experiment that illustrates how clouds form. Students learn to identify different types of clouds. The cloud lesson is designed not only to teach the students information about clouds, but also to encourage abstract thinking through writing and painting/drawing. The lesson facilitates the use of higher thinking skills and encourages self-expression. Students should be able to explain in their own words how clouds form. They will also track the types of clouds they see in the sky over a week or two and record them in their science notebooks.

Activities and Procedures: For this lesson, students investigate making a "cloud" in a jar. Students will develop testable questions based on their findings and will record their results in their science notebooks. Students may also present their results to the class. To further expand on the lesson, the children will learn the cloud types and discuss the information about clouds. Next, they will choose what type of cloud they would like to be if they were a cloud and write a composition about it. Lastly, they paint/create their cloud and attach their composition.


* Cloud Information (written below)
* Cloud Dance by Thomas Locker
* White Typing Paper
* Watercolors/markers/colored pencils
* Science notebooks

* glass jar with lid
* hot water
* small metal tray
* ice cubes
* sheet of black construction paper

Background information:


Clouds are masses of water droplets or ice crystals that are suspended in the air. When the droplets or crystals become too heavy to remain suspended, they fall to the Earth. In order for clouds to form, three things are needed. First, the relative humidity must be close to 100 percent. Second, tiny bits of matter, such as dust, must be present. (Water collects or condenses around these particles). Third, something must happen to cool the air. If all three conditions exist, clouds form. The type of clouds that form depend on how cold the air is and how much water is in the air.


Just by studying a cloud's shape, a meteorologist can tell a great deal about the cloud. There are three basic kinds of clouds. Cirrus clouds are thin, feathery clouds. They are high in the sky. They are so high that they are made up of the ice particles. They are generally white or whitish in color. Cumulus clouds look like puffs of cotton piled in a heap. They are commonly known as fair-weathered clouds. They are usually nearer the earth than cirrus clouds. Stratus clouds are low, flat clouds. They are often dark and bring rain. "Alto" means "high". Altostratus clouds are higher than stratus clouds.


After the experiment and initial cloud discussions, have the children read and discuss the information about clouds. Then have them write a composition about what type of cloud they would like to be. Ask how were they formed? What they look like? Where are they located? Let the students be creative. The composition should be one page, so that the cloud painting can be attached to the bottom or top of the paper. This composition can be used as a summative assessment at the end of the unit as well as formative assessment.


After the students have neatly written a one-page composition, have them paint the cloud they described. When the painting is dry, they can attach it to the composition. Then, have the students hang their projects in the hall for display. You can use the caption, "WHAT KIND OF CLOUD ARE YOU?" but any caption you choose may be used. You may also place the clouds in the position that they would be in the sky for further effect.

The Experiment

This experiment will illustrate how clouds form. Explain to students that you will perform this experiment first for the class because it involves very hot water.

* Fill the glass jar half-full with very hot water.
* Cover the jar
* Place ice cubes (in a baggie) on to of the jar.
* Hold the sheet of black construction paper behind the experiment. (That will make it easier for students to see the cloud as it forms in the top of the jar.)

Have student groups get the materials and start their experiment on their own. Have them record their results and questions they have based on the experiment in their science notebooks.

Follow up:

Ask students to identify things they might see in the sky. They might list things such as the sun, stars, the moon, rain, birds... and clouds.

Ask students what they know about clouds. Also ask them if they know what clouds are made of? Ask students to go outside and observe the clouds and draw what they see in their science notebooks. Ask students to think of other things that are similar to clouds such as a fog and seeing their breaths outside in the winter. Lead students into a discussion about clouds, fog and seeing their breath- do they think they are similar? Why? How are these things alike and different to clouds?

Explain that clouds are made up of millions of tiny water droplets. Tell students that you are going to do a simple experiment to teach them how clouds form. Later, you will introduce them to the main types of clouds they might see in the sky.

Once students have had the opportunity to witness a cloud form, ask them why they think it happened? You might ask them... What happens to water as it sits still? (Water evaporates). What happened as the evaporating water (water vapor) came in contact with the ice cubes? (Ice cooled the water vapor inside the jar; the water vapor changed, or condensed, into water droplets/a cloud formed). How does this experiment help you to understand how clouds form in the sky? (Water evaporates from land; as water vapor rises into the atmosphere, it cools; the water vapor condenses into water droplets/clouds form).

Different Types of Clouds

There are three main types of clouds.

* Cumulus clouds -- puffy clouds that look like puffs of cotton (often a sign of fair weather)

* Stratus clouds -- flat sheets of clouds (often a sign of overcast weather)

* Cirrus clouds -- high curly, feathery clouds (often a sign of fair weather)

Have students monitor the clouds in the sky each day for the next week or two. Have them keep a chart. You might take digital photos of the clouds so that you have a record of them. The book Cloud Dance, by Thomas Locker will also be used to connect pictures of clouds to poetry about clouds. (Students could extend by writing their own poetry about clouds). Have students discuss if certain cloud types can be indicators or predictors of weather. Are certain types of clouds associated with stormy weather, good weather, etc.?

Optional additional activity: Another whole addition to this lesson would be to explore the history behind cloud types. Students could come up with their own stories or versions on how the cloud types were named. Then you could follow up with the stories by reading the real story of how clouds were classified. Cloud classification was attributed to Luke Howard who was born in London in 1772.

Further, there are great word analysis opportunities for your students because of the way Howard named the clouds. For example, CUMULUS, Latin for 'heap'; STRATUS, Latin for 'layer'; CIRRUS, Latin for 'wispy curly hair'; and, NIMBUS, Latin for 'rain'. There is also a children's book about him titled, "The Man Who Named the Clouds," by Julie Hannah, Joan Holub and Page Belli-Frye.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have altered this experiment so that I don't tell students that they are creating a cloud- I have them discover this on their own. Having students work in groups and present their results also works well. Sharing the groups' testable questions is very important. I also give students an additional opportunity to do an experiment with these testable questions.


Formative or formal assessment of student diagrams and journaling can be used as an indicator of understanding. Student participation and responses may also be used as assessment. Further, the following internet site can also be used as an assessment tool.
Cloud Game: (
Have students write down their answers. Then click on the images to see the correct answers. How many clouds did students correctly identify?

Standards – Describe how the states of matter change as a result of heating and cooling.

References and Resources