Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is El Nino, Anyway? A 5E Lesson Plan

And... that's about the extent of most people's understanding of El Nino.

I must confess that I too used to be just as clueless, and it wasn't until I took courses on meteorology and climatology in grad school that I understood what was actually occurring. We can do better for our students! So, in celebration of Earth Day (April 22nd), I wanted to share with you one of my favorite earth science lessons.

Here is a 5E (engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate) lesson plan to help get it done. 


The 2015-16 El Nino was the strongest in almost two decades, causing wildfires and drought in Southeast Asia and heavy rains and flooding in the Eastern Pacific.

To get your students engaged, begin with real-world emotional connections via news reports showing drought and wildfires in Indonesia:

And flooding and mudslides in previously drought-stricken California:

After watching these clips, a class discussion to probe students for prior knowledge could include questions like:

-Geographically, how are these locations related (use maps as needed)?
-What do you think is causing this?
-Did you notice anything out of the ordinary about our local weather patterns last winter during El Nino conditions?


The epitaph on my tombstone will read "explore before explain." 

If at all possible, before doing a whole-class demonstration or lecture, allow the students to make a small version of the Pacific Ocean using this quick modeling activity (perfect for NGSS Science and Engineering Practices) from NOAA. Plastic shoe box containers can be used and purchased in a class-sized 12-pack, and students can bring in hairdryers from home for the day.  


A large-scale class demonstration at this point is extremely useful before moving onto any 2-D texts or diagrams. I use a cheap 10 gallon aquarium (I've had the same one for 8 years), vegetable oil, blue food coloring, a hair dryer and water. If you would like to add some faux detritus (dead stuff) to the ocean floor, sprinkle in some fish food or some Italian dressing; the particles will sink to bottom and help simulate the nutrient-rich deep ocean water. If you're lucky, some particles will upwell when you turn on the hair dryer. Check out the details in this video:

You may also find this recorded class discussion that scaffolds an understanding of high and low pressure useful if your students have not mastered those concepts yet:


Once students have a basic spatial understanding of what is occurring in the ocean, they can elaborate with the Can We Blame El Nino for these Events? online interactive. It goes deeper (haha) into the inner-workings of the thermocline, ocean height and temperature. My favorite part is that they get to examine the weather anomalies for the continental United States, and hone in on their hometown. 

Thermocline illustration from Can We Blame El Nino?

As ticket out the door, students can draw a side view of the Pacific ocean including trade winds, surface temperatures, and air pressures. For example (source):

To differentiate for younger ages or students that need additional help, you could use a pre-drawn picture and remove certain pieces information to make it a cloze exercise. For example, you could remove the words "warmer," "cooler," or "reversed."

As a summative assessment, students could research and create five-day forecasts for your local area that detail how the conditions would vary during a La Nina or El Nino. For example, Georgia's winters are warmer and dryer during La Nina, so a student's weather report would have higher temperatures and little precipitation with references to normal conditions.  

Happy Earth Day, and be on the lookout for "Godzilla" El Ninos!




  1. Anonymous4/21/2017

    Time to pull out the old aquarium in the stock room! Excellent demo and lesson. Thanks

    1. Awesome! I hope it works well for you.