Friday, June 29, 2018

Sixth Grade Science: Tracking Hurricanes with Students

Our sixth grade science curriculum has shifted to covering more of the middle level earth, space, and atmospheric science standards. Last year, I worked with this by adding a new science starter for the fall months: hurricane tracking.

Tracking these storms is important for the classroom in several ways. First, every time we track a storm, students build their geography skills, practicing using latitude and longitude to find a location. In addition, tracking storms adds a real-life current events component to science class. Students see firsthand how science techniques like collecting and analyzing data are important to everyone! I also like to use the technique of tracking storms because it helps students to work with a topic over a period of time. It's not just a one-day lesson, but an ongoing synthesis of data and ideas.

Preparing to track storms

I have several items in my classroom to help me track hurricanes. At the start of the school year last year, I made a list of the Atlantic basic hurricane names for the year. (Future lists) Next year, I think that I will add the Pacific basin as an extension for students who work quickly and would like an extra challenge.

In addition, I made a packet with about 10 copies of the Atlantic tracking chart, available from NOAA. You can find the tracking charts here:

Hurricane tracking charts

One thing that I always fix up when I make copies is to make the latitude and longitude markings a little larger, as sometimes kids say that they have trouble reading the tiny numbers.

I also include a Know-Wonder-Learn chart in my booklets, as well as a listing of hurricane intensity categories.

Daily routine

We quickly fall into a daily routine of hurricane tracking. I start the class by projecting the Active Tropical Cyclones page from the National Weather Service. Last year was an active year, so we had lots of storms to track!

I wrote the latitude and longitude of the day's storm or storms on the board, and students found those coordinates and marked them. Some liked to use multiple colors to mark storms, while others found a pencil to be sufficient. We put the date and the name of the storm in small writing next to the storm.

I kept track of the data on a chart in the classroom so that students who missed a day could quickly catch up.

The question of whether to track tropical disturbances comes up frequently. In most cases, I leave it up to the class. If a disturbance has less than a 30% chance of developing, then we usually don't mark it. But sometimes students want to record the information, especially if there aren't any other active storms that day.

As students become more independent with the routine and depending on our other activities for the day, sometimes they do visit the NHC website and record the information on their own. There are many other educational activities on the site for students to explore, and they enjoy bringing new information to share with the rest of the class.


Students quickly notice the difference in markings between a tropical disturbance, a tropical storm, and a hurricane. (Here's a reference if you're curious.)  They begin to use these different notations in their own tracking charts. With the document camera, I can project the hurricane charts of several students so that we can discuss what they have in common and what they may want to work on.

Students also start to notice that most of our Atlantic hurricanes start off the coast of Africa. This leads them to make hypotheses about the tracks of future storms. When some storms don't act in the ways that they expect, students begin to wonder about what other variables may be influencing them.

I always approach hurricane tracking with a questioning frame of mind. I'm not at all an expert in meteorology, but I've learned a lot from three years of hurricane tracking!

The emotional impact

There is definitely an emotional side to tracking storms. Located as we are in Pennsylvania, severe storms rarely reach us. However, students are still anxious about the impacts of storms.

It's tough to stand in front of the classroom and discuss with students whether a tropical disturbance will turn into the named storm Maria one week and then watch it wreak havoc the next. As I remind students, though, these things will happen whether we track them or not. Knowing about the storms and being a fully informed citizen helps to make severe weather less scary in the long run.


On days with no storms, we build background knowledge with videos and lessons. Here is a playlist of my favorites.

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