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Teaching About Extreme Weather Sparks Students Interest

Kathy Bosiak is confident teaching weather and climate. She is a self-declared weather nerd who likes to sit on her front porch and watch thunderstorms. She moved from New Hampshire to North Carolina 36 years ago and has personally experienced many east coast extreme weather events. She teaches High School Earth and Environmental Science, Human Anatomy, State Wildlife, Forensics, and Ecology. She recently took our Teaching Extreme Weather professional learning to get more information for her classroom toolbox. Here she shares with us how she is using what she learned to engage her students and spark their curiosity.

What motivated you to take a course focused on teaching about extreme weather?

I have always been a weather nerd and especially extreme weather. I think that one of the best ways to engage students, at least initially, is to use something that goes above the mediocre. Extreme weather usually brings great stories and often has an element of danger for an area. I have lived in a number of places and have experienced everything from hurricanes to snow storms as intense as the Nor’easter of 1978. But just living through something doesn’t mean that you can adequately explain it to someone who hasn’t. It doesn’t mean that you can tell someone why it happens or what the probability that it will happen may be. I wanted to have that information in my classroom toolbox.

Before taking the course, how much did you know about teaching weather and climate, and extreme weather phenomena, and how confident did you feel to teach these topics?

I feel like I knew a lot about what the different phenomena were and where they occurred because I had experienced so many of them. I used to sit on my front porch and watch thunderstorms; I still do. So I guess that I knew the basics about things as well and that made me feel pretty confident and comfortable about teaching weather and climate, and also about extreme weather events. In doing the course, I discovered that I really had so much more to learn and to connect with climate change.

What were your key takeaways from the course with regard to how to teach about extreme weather and engage students on the topic?

One of the key takeaways from the course was that the more real world data or examples that I could bring into my classroom, the more my students would buy into what they were learning. I learned to expose them to all extreme weather events for knowledge’s sake, but then to bring them back to our area and explore the significant changes in our weather over the past 50 years. Our state Earth & Environmental standards with regard to weather are woefully basic. So, having said that, I use the content I learned as extension material in class. Depending on the level of the class, the students dive more or less deeply into the extreme weather material.

Since taking the course, what classroom activities have you added or are you planning to add?

I’ve only been working with the new material for one semester. Currently, we are actually exploring what the students find interesting and engaging. My students collect weather data for the entire semester. They graph connected topics such as temperature, dew point, humidity, wind, clouds, Air Quality Index etc. They work through the graphs and then look for correlations, (or not), in the data. I have kept daily information for many years and so they have the opportunity to review 20+ years of local information and make observations about what they see. They are recording data on particulate matter in the atmosphere in various places around the school and community.

What was the impact of these activities on student learning and engagement?

At the start of the semester, the students didn’t see much point in taking any collection data and now they try to determine if severe weather is in our forecast based on how they see connections between temperature, pressure, dewpoint, humidity and cloud cover. It is a slow start, but so many of them have very little experience even looking at the sky, much less understanding what makes it rain.

So, I’d describe the impact as has having taken a group of disengaged, disinterested students and turning them into individuals that want to learn about what is going on right now; why is the pressure rising, why is North Carolina experiencing bigger, more violent thunderstorms or why do we rarely get accumulating snow anymore. The extreme weather content has been the “hook” to find out why places are experiencing rainbombs. Why have we gone almost a month without measurable rain and what will that mean for this summer? They are not quite there yet, but the curiosity spark has been lit because we talk about everything in terms of extreme weather.

In my human anatomy classes, I now have my students look at the effect of extreme heat events/ heatwaves on the human body. Heatwaves are becoming increasingly more intense. Previously, when I was growing up, a heat wave would have consisted of five or more days of 90 degrees or above. In those days that was catastrophic because people didn’t have air conditioning. Currently, in North Carolina, we are experiencing heat waves with temperatures above 110 degrees for longer time periods. My anatomy students look at how the prolonged high heat affects the human body, particularly in the elderly or very young or impoverished. We also look at how extreme cold weather affects them in the case of ice, snow or cold temperatures. Discussing these effects is also a great way to explore social justice.

Future teaching weather and climate lesson plans will be created with continued input from my students on what they want/need to know about extreme weather.

What would you like to say to other science educators who are teaching weather and climate about the benefits they will gain from taking the Teaching Extreme Weather course?

The benefits are multilevel. Firstly, there are the personal benefits. You, yourself, know more about your world. You can explain to friends or family what is going on in the atmosphere. You will become more comfortable speculating about what potentially will happen in a particular set of weather conditions. Then there is the personal pride in finishing a course that will challenge you and push you to be the best you can be. It’s just plain awesome! Who wouldn’t want to teach about thundersnow or amazing lightning? It makes you aware of the potential hazards presented in a severe weather event and how to prepare for it!

Secondly, there are the teaching and classroom benefits. You will have a tool box of amazing hooks to engage your students and spark so much curiosity and open up new thoughts. For example, about things like possible jobs from meteorologist to computer program designers that create the systems used to graph and tabulate data. You will be able to share safety preparations for students, and the community through the students. Lastly you will take a basic, uninteresting state standard that focuses often on a lot of definitions and amp it up so that it is something that your students want to learn not have to learn.

Anything else you’d like to share or add that might be helpful to other teachers who are considering taking the course?

Get excited about the course. Be ready to learn and don’t be overwhelmed by the terminology or the new material. There is always someone that will answer or clarify questions. When you are incorporating the extreme weather into your class, think outside the box and become adventurous, just like the weather. If you think it’s cool, the students will too!!

And, lastly, never underestimate your power as a teacher to affect the lives of your students. A few years back I taught AP Environmental Science and there was a student that was just as nerdy as I am about weather. He would do a forecast for us daily. Now that is his real job. He was a meteorologist in Rockford, Ill. and is now in Gainesville, Fla. How great is that!

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Kathy Bosiak Bio Picture

I’d describe the impact as has having taken a group of disengaged, disinterested students and turning them into individuals that want to learn about what is going on right now; why is the pressure rising, why is North Carolina experiencing bigger, more violent thunderstorms or why do we rarely get accumulating snow anymore. The extreme weather content has been the “hook” to find out why places are experiencing rainbombs. Why have we gone almost a month without measurable rain and what will that mean for this summer?

Kathy Bosiak