MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Looking at Clouds: Identifying Cumulus, Cirrus and Stratus Clouds

Looking at Clouds: Identifying Cumulus, Cirrus and Stratus Clouds

Jean K. Fairchild, GFW Elementary School, Gibbon, MN
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In this third grade science class, small teams of students (4-5) are given 7-9 photos of the three basic cloud types. The teams determine criteria for sorting the clouds into 2-3 groups, list traits of each group, and name each cloud group. A poster session follows in which each small team shares their information. All posters are studied for commonalities.
The teacher displays an "official" cloud poster and introduces the terms cumulus, cirrus and stratus. Traits of each cloud type are discussed and noted. Students record the vocabulary terms and sketch of each cloud type in their notebooks, along with any team generated traits that fit. The teacher then shows a new cloud photo that the students determine which group it belongs in and why.

Learning Goals

This activity is designed for students to:
1. Observe
2. Discuss and determine traits to group clouds
3. Share and explain grouping
4. Determine which group new photos would belong in
Key concepts covered are observations of similarities and differences in clouds, sharing of findings through poster session, and applying agreed vocab to classify new photos.

Vocabulary words: REVIEWED-similar and different
NEW- cirrus, stratus, cumulus

Context for Use

This activity is designed for a 40-minute third grade science class in a self-contained classroom. Students are placed in small teams of 4-5 students with each team receiving the same set of materials. Students have already worked in team settings and understand the roles given to each team member. This would be the introductory lesson to the cloud section of the weather unit. The materials are easy to handle which allows this lesson to be done in nearly any school setting.

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

Description and Teaching Materials

Students are arranged in small teams of 4-5 students with jobs assigned to each student (facilitator, materials manager, timekeeper, recorder, reporter). Each student needs his/her science notebook and pencil to record notes. The team recorder will make certain that everyone has the information at the end of the class.

The teacher introduces the lesson by asking the students, "What is something we have all seen from below, some from above and some from inside?" Kids will give wild guess and more hints will need to be given. "It is something outside." "Something that pilots and meteorologists pay close attention to..." Once the students have figured out that the answer is clouds, the lesson can begin.

In this lesson, students will be looking at photos of clouds. Their task is to observe the clouds and separate the photos into 2-3 groups. Each team will determine how to separate the clouds or determine what traits of the clouds to use. Once that is done, give each group a name and list the traits. Put grouped photos, cloud names and traits on the poster and be prepared to share the findings with the class. There will be 12 minutes to do this. Material manager may get the supplies.

Once the 12 minutes are up, the posters will be displayed. Each student team will be asked to share their findings. Each team member must contribute at least one comment. All posters will be reviewed/discussed with similarities and differences noted.

An "official" cloud poster will be shown to the class. The terms for each cloud type (cirrus, stratus, cumulus) will be introduced along with the traits used to classify each cloud. Students will record this information in their notebooks.

The teacher will then display new cloud photos and ask each student to place it in the correct group by holding up one, two, or three fingers in front of their chest. (One for cirrus, two for stratus, three for cumulus) The students will give explanations.

The lesson will close with a review of the terms and the hook that tomorrow students will be "walking" through these cloud types and creating their own cloud. Students should begin to think about which cloud type they think is the neatest and how they might draw, paint or create a 3D model of that cloud.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Assessment: Student notebooks will be checked for sketches, team generated cloud traits, proper vocabulary and traits of each cloud type.


This activity would align with the MN Science standard grade level 3 Strand III Earth and Space Science B.2

References and Resources