Researching The Rain Shadow Effect

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SWBAT explain the rain shadow effect and why it happens.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will begin creating a 3D model of the rain shadow effect. Then, students will explore the rain shadow effect by accessing several online resources.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will study each of Earth's major systems: biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. In addition, students will investigate how these systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth's materials and processes by conducting research, constructing graphs, creating models, carrying out scientific investigations, and analyzing real-world applications. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by showing students how to begin creating a rain shadow effect model. Students then begin constructing their own 3D models and exploring the rain shadow effect through online research. Tomorrow, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of rain shadow effect by labeling their rain shadow effect models with little cards, toothpicks, and clay. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):'

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 2: Developing and Using Models

Student begin developing a 3D model of the rain shadow effect. They will also use computer simulations (models) to make sense of the scientific processes involved in the rain shadow effect. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models 

Students analyze the components of a rain shadow effect model by examining the interactions of the Earth's systems (hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere). 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS2.A:  Earth Materials and Systems

Earth’s major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth’s surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather. (5-ESS2-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources to locate key information involving the rain shadow effect. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


50 minutes

Now that students have learned about each of the Earth's spheres (biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere), I want to provide students with the opportunity to examine real-world applications using this new knowledge. For this reason, in the course of two lessons, students will research the Rain Shadow Effect, construct a model, and analyze how the Earth's systems interact during this scientific phenomenon. 

Lesson Explanation

Day 1: Today, students begin creating a model of the rain shadow effect by constructing a 3D model of an ocean, mountain range, and arid region (Student Example of Model Without Labels). Then, students research what the rain shadow effect is and why it happens. 

Day 2: Tomorrow, students will apply their understanding of the rain shadow effect by labeling their 3D models with steps and key words (Student Rain Shadow Effect Model with Labels). Then, students will discuss how the Earth's systems are interacting during the rain shadow effect. 

Teacher Note: I specifically decide to focus on the rain shadow effect in this unit because it provides students with the opportunity to model the water cycle. Also, it helps students make sense of the formation of clouds (rising air cools and condenses to form clouds). Finally, the rain shadow effect provides great opportunities for students to discuss how the spheres interact (for example, the mountain range, part of the geosphere, causes the air mass to rise).  

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain the rain shadow effect and why it happens. Referring to the Earth Systems Poster from the beginning of this unit, I explain: During this unit, you have learned about the biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. For the next two lessons, we are going to continue our study of these spheres by learning how the Earth's spheres interact during the rain shadow effect.

Today, we are going to begin building a model of the rain shadow effect and we will also explore the rain shadow effect by researching multiple online resources. Tomorrow, we will label the steps of the rain shadow effect using clay and toothpicks. 


At this time, I invite students to join me at the back table where I want to demonstrate how to create a model of the rain shadow effect landforms without telling students what the rain shadow effect actually is! My hope is that the process of building a 3D model will inspire students to explore this scientific process further through research. 

I begin by showing students how to create landforms using Crayola Model Magic, a piece of cardboard (9" x 12"), and tape: Teacher Demonstration, Creating Landforms.

Next, I demonstrate how to add an ocean (blue paint), land and a mountain region (brown paint), and an arid region (khaki paint): Teacher Demonstration, Adding Paint.

Finally, we discuss the placement of vegetation (green paint): Teacher Demonstration, Adding Vegetation

By the end of this demonstration, students can't wait to get their hands on these materials! 


To prepare for 10 science teams to create rain shadow effect models, I set out the following supplies prior to this lesson: 


Getting Ready

At this point, I ask students to return to their desks. I also ask each student in each group of three students to silently show me a #1, #2, or #3 on their hands. 

To distribute the supplies, I ask: Can #2 students grab a tape dispenser? Can #1 students get a piece of posterboard? Can #3 students get a piece of cardboard? To avoid congestion, I spread supply "stations" throughout the room and I also wait until students return to their desks before asking the next students to get their supplies. This management strategy works for easy clean up as well: Can #3 students return the tape dispensers to the back counter? 

As students are ready, they begin creating the landforms on their 3D models by following three main steps:

1. Students Adding a Mountain Range

2. Students Adding Crayola Model Magic

3. Students Adding Paint 

Teacher Note: As my model begins to dry, I notice the edges curling up (Curling Up), so I ask students to tape down each of their corners to avoid the same problem. 


40 minutes

Getting Ready to Research 

As students finish creating landforms on their models and cleaning up, we transition to researching the rain shadow effect. I pass out the following graphic organizer to each student and model how to write the main idea in the center: Rain Shadow Effect Web. Referring to the goal of the lesson, I explain: Your goal today is to take notes that will help you explain what the rain shadow effect is and why it happens! 

To make research easier, I ask students to now work in groups of two. (This may seem like it could be confusing, but my students are quite comfortable at this point working in groups of 2 or 3, depending on the lesson.) After students hold up a #1 or #2, I ask #1 students to get a laptop computer from the cart. I'm hoping that sharing a computer will encourage a higher level of collaboration between the two students. 

Sharing Resources

Using a Google Presentation (Rain Shadow Effect Research) I share the following online resources: 1) the video below, 2) an animation, and 3) a National Geographic text. By providing students with a variety of resources, I'm also allowing greater access to information to a range of students. Some students learn best by reading text while others learn best from listening or watching.


Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What patterns have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  8. Can you explain how the rain shadow effect works? 
  9. How does the ____ (sphere) impact the rain shadow effect? 
  10. Does ___ make sense to you? Why?

Student Conferences

Here, Students Developing Theories, the students are right in the middle of their research, but I love watching how they are developing their theories about the rain shadow effect and chaining their thinking as they complete more and more research. 

During this conference, Students Making Connections, I encourage the students to begin making connections with their research (instead of just writing down facts). I love how one student uses the analogy of his brother hogging all the blankets in bed to explain how one side of the mountain range "hogs" all the precipitation. 

Here, Students Discussing the Earth's Systems, the students begin connecting the rain shadow effect with a much larger concept in science by discussing how the Earth's systems interact to create the rain shadow effect! 

Student Work

Most students were able to complete their graphic organizers during this time: 


During tomorrow's lesson, Interacting Earth Systems: Rain Shadow Effect Day 2, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of the rain shadow effect to label their 3D models and to discuss how the Earth's spheres are interacting during the rain shadow process.