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Chasing El Niño

Classroom Activity

To formulate a question and design an experiment to evaluate the accuracy of weather folklore.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "Forecasting Folklore" student handout (HTML)
  1. Ask students what they know about weather folklore and if they've ever heard any folklore that predicts weather. Generate a list of folklore sayings from those that students already know and from those that students collect by surveying their family and friends (a starter list can be found at the end of the student handout). Encourage students to survey people from older generations.

  2. Organize students into pairs or small groups and distribute the activity sheets. Review sayings that students have generated as a class and discuss which of those might be proved or disproved by a controlled experiment or by observation and comparison. Have students select a saying that they think is possible to investigate. Students will use the guiding questions on the student handouts to help them formulate a question and design an experiment to evaluate the accuracy of that saying.

  3. To help students consider what makes an investigable question you may want them to consider why the following questions do or do not work:

    • Do crickets chirp faster when it is warmer and slower when it is cooler? (difficult to investigate because experimenter doesn't know what's warm or cold to a cricket)

    • Do crickets in the schoolyard chirp faster when the temperature is higher or lower? (investigable question)

    • Why do crickets chirp at different speeds? (most "why" questions are difficult to investigate)

  4. Once students have completed their experiments, have them present their experimental design to the class and have class members predict what they think was found. Then have the presenting team share its data and have class members interpret it. Finally, have team members share their results to the class, explain how they arrived at their conclusions, and discuss any differing opinions.

  5. As an extension, students can research additional data that supports or contradicts their experimental findings and research why certain folklore sayings are more accurate than others.

Activity Answer

The main objective is for students to design a sound scientific investigation. Before students begin, you might want to review their questions and experimental designs to ensure that they can complete the experiment within classroom constraints.

Most of the sayings lend themselves to observation and comparison. Any of these sayings could be proved or disproved, depending on the factors students choose to use as measures. Different students might use different factors. For example, in the saying "High clouds indicate fine weather will prevail; lower clouds mean rain," a student who uses bright sunshine as a measure of fine weather might find the saying accurate, while a student who uses temperature over 65°F as a factor might find the saying inaccurate. Discuss with students the importance of choosing factors that are valid measures.

After students present their conclusions, discuss why some folklore sayings seem to be more accurate than others. In general, folklore that takes into account factors such as atmospheric conditions, shape and movement of clouds, and direction and force of winds can have accurate forecasting results for specific localities. In addition, sayings that are based on scientific principles are reliable. Folklore that refers to animals, birds, and insects is sometimes—but not usually—accurate. Whether a folklore saying is accurate or not has a lot to do with the locality. A folklore saying that works in one region may be entirely inaccurate in another region.

Links and Books


Williams, Jack. The Weather Book. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Describes major weather events, has state-to-state weather comparisons, and contains profiles of the nation's top atmospheric scientists. Includes graphics and clear descriptions to explain the intricacies of how weather works.


Johnson, Kerry Anne. "El Niño and the Teacher at Sea." Science Scope (April 1998): 23-27.
Provides an eighth-grade teacher's account of her month-long adventure aboard one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) research vessels monitoring the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) buoys near Hawaii. Has an activity involving the Coriolis effect. Also describes the placement of the TAO buoys.

Nash, J. Madeleine. "The Fury of El Niño." Time (February 16, 1998): 67-73.
Gives an account of how El Niño affects weather the world over.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Tracking El Niño
This Web site, a NOVA/PBS Online Adventure launched in Winter 1998, includes information about the anatomy and reach of El Niño. Archived dispatches of scientists' efforts to track El Niño will be Updated with information on how those predictions stacked up to what actually happened with this powerful weather phenomenon.

NOAA El Niño Page
Provides current El Niño status reports, fact sheets, a web tour of the TAO buoy array and more.

Weather-Related Sites
Contains a comprehensive chart of weather-related sites.


The "Forecasting Folklore" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry:

  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.

  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze and interpret data.

  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions and models using evidence.

  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.

  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.

  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Grades 9-12

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry:

  • Identify questions and concepts that guide scientific investigations.

  • Design and conduct scientific investigations.

  • Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.

  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models.

  • Communicate and defend a scientific argument.

Teacher's Guide
Chasing El Niño

Video is not required for this activity

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