What is Climate and What Causes it to Change?

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SWBAT compare weather to climate and identify their ideas on what causes climate to change.

Big Idea

Use this lesson to find out what your students initial ideas are on climate and climate change.

Getting Started

The goal of this activity is for students to identify their prior knowledge on climate and climate change. There are many common misconceptions about climate change. It is important to be aware of these before beginning, so that you can probe for them - and explicitly address them - to ensure student understanding. 

Materials Needed:

  • Student Science journals and pencils
  • Poster paper or white boards
  • colored markers

Note on student grouping: For the first part of the activity, students work by themselves for about 10 minutes, then work in groups of 3-4 for the remainder of the activity.


15 minutes

I begin this lesson with a Weather or Climate? Do Now activity, having students define in their own words what climate is and how it is different than weather. After giving students a few minute to work on the activity, I have the class share out their ideas. 

Next, we come up with a working definition of each and record these on poster paper. Using the class definitions, we identify whether the phenomenon on the list are weather or climate.

When you are ready, project/write each on the board or put up a poster with phenomenon listed. Go through the list and have students identify "weather" or "climate" for each.

Be sure to stop and discuss each to make sure the class consensus meets their agreed on definitions of climate and weather. 

The answers are as follows:

W, W, C, C, W, W, W, WC, C, C, C, W


8 minutes

Engage students ideas by asking them respond to the following questions in their journals without talking to their neighbors. (5-7 min) If they have clarifying questions for you, try not to give any content specific information at this time. You want only their initial ideas, not the “right answer.”

  • What causes weather to change?
  • What causes climate to change ?

 The value of this step is for you to have an opportunity to collect some "data" on what your students know prior to the lesson. I have found this to be a critical part of the flow of my teaching as it helps me recognize potential misconceptions and challenges to the lessons ahead. 

Give students 5-7 minutes to write their ideas down. Have them get into groups of 3-4 students and give each table a large sheet of poster paper or if you have white boards, one large white board per group along with colored markers.

NOTE: You might consider separating these questions across two different classes. 


15 minutes

Working in groups, ask students to create two Mind Maps with CHANGES IN WEATHER in the center of one and CLIMATE CHANGE in the center of the other.  Using their collective ideas and questions they should create mind maps to group and connect their responses.

NOTE: Encourage them to FIND CONSENSUS within their group, but HONOR ALL IDEAS. They may have FRIENDLY DEBATES, but this is not the time to have the “right answer.”

If you or your students have not had any experience creating Mind Maps, please read How to Make A Mind Map® before you begin this lesson. This is a powerful brainstorming tool that I use frequently with both my students and my colleagues and there are some simple to follow protocols that will make the process run more better if followed. 


20 minutes

Ask each group to share their posters with the class. I do not correct any misconceptions at this time, nor do I allow or encourage any debate, questions or discussions. If students have questions, we record them on a poster and address them later. 

Also, I like to sit to the side or at the back of the class and take general notes about the students' ideas. I find these notes helpful when planning future lessons. 

Before we begin, I like to emphasize some basics of public speaking. While these are by no means formal presentations, I still ask students to make sure to speak clearly, face their audience, not their posters, keep hands to their sides or hold in front, stand up (they like to lean on the white board), etc. 

Be mindful of time as this part can run overtime if not managed well. You may want to use a timer to keep things on track. Some students (and teachers as well) can be long winded. One strategy I like to use is to ask kids to explain their answer in 20 words or less. This challenges them to think carefully, be concise and hopefully clear.

When we are finished, I use the Climate & Weather Slides to wrap up the discussion. This powerpoint resource is from Stanford University School of Earth Sciences: Climate Change Education.