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Bright spells

A club can enliven meteorology says Chris Fautley after seeing one at work

Though Jerome K Jerome observed: "We shall never be content until each man makes his own weather and keeps it to himself," students at Nodehill Middle School in Newport, Isle of Wight, gleefully accepted a challenge from Meridian Television's resident forecaster. Both forecasts were filmed and subsequently broadcast.

It began last year, when science and geography teacher Richard Peace took his meteorology club to the studios to see how a forecast is prepared. The club, with members from all years, already provided a weekly forecast for the school newsletter. "I wanted to show them that what they were doing is really no different to what the professionals did," he said.

The club was founded after Richard Peace and science technician George Wilks installed a weather station outside the science lab. It aroused so much interest they decided to start a club, says Richard. Members soon wanted to try forecasting. He produced a crib sheet to take students through the basics of simple predictions. They examined pressure readings, temperature records, cloud types and wind direction. The only external resource used is the pressure maps on the BBC weather website.

"One thing I am impressed about is that they don't want to cheat," he says.

The students soon realised their forecasts were much the same as those issued elsewhere. And that, says Richard, is a prime motivation. "They are doing things they see people on television doing, with a similar success rate."

Once the club was established, Richard and George set about incorporating weather into science. They developed a "drying clothes experiment" (see details left). This fits nicely into the key stage 2 Changing State unit.

"We've had some really good results, proving that the wind is more important than temperature in terms of evaporation," Richard says. It makes the science tangible because students are able to relate the experiment to situations at home.

George has also built a "radiation box" for use in the KS3 Solar System and Beyond unit, to measure insolation over the seasons. It will also be used in the Energy Resources unit.

Three hand-sized boxes are exposed to the sun and used to measure its energy. The first has a bare metal surface that reflects the sun. The second, also metal, is painted matt black; it absorbs heat quickly but loses it at a similar rate. The third is identical to the second, but "insulated" with a layer of glass; accordingly, heat is trapped. Sensors record the temperatures of all three.

Another exercise uses weather-station data to investigate the water cycle.

A comparison of the data for wind direction and precipitation shows that southwesterly winds are usually accompanied by rain. Pupils then consider why this might be, and why northerly winds are generally dry, thus opening a window on to thermal absorption and radiation, and convection currents (KS3 Heating and Cooling).

The club's latest experiment is a plan to draw up a pH profile of UK rainfall, and they already have rain samples from friends and relations in Essex, Edinburgh, Lancashire and London. This will be introduced into the KS3 unit Acids and Alkalis and will also enable students to appreciate the effects of acid rain on a regional basis (KS3 Rocks and Weathering). "What we intend to do is compare the pH of these sites," he says.

Such analysis, he suggests, enlivens what otherwise might be considered dull areas of the curriculum. "They do it in the lab, but it's still a bit abstract in terms of 'it's a strong acid, it's a weak acid'," he says.

Again, its tangibility means that students find the subject easier: "This is what your rainfall is like. Your rainfall is mildly acidic."

"I'm getting a little bit of a wow factor in terms of planning these things," Richard says. "Often we'll start off with an idea and after a couple of weeks it has completely changed direction - either we couldn't do it or we found something else out while we were doing it."

As for weather forecasting, club members agree that critics should try it themselves - it isn't as easy as it looks. Year 8 student Jasmine Hayden said: "Forecasting comes with practice, and previous mistakes can be learned from." And the TV challenge? "We were both totally wrong - but for the right reasons," Richard reflects.

* If you would like to exchange ideas or help the Nodehill team build up their pH rainfall analysis, send your own analysis or a sample of rainfall and Richard Peace will exchange data. Nodehill Middle School, Upper St James' Street, Newport, Isle of Wight PO30 1LJ Email:

Try this

The drying clothes experiment helps understand what happens to molecules with evaporation. Temperature is important, but so is the wind, blowing away vapour close to the cloth when it has evaporated, thus allowing further evaporation of molecules in that space. Take five identically sized pieces of the same fabric - cotton is ideal. Weigh each dry, then soak them and hang them out for one hour in different places: the lab; shelter and shade; wind and shade; shelter and sun; wind and sun. Reweigh and compare results.

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