How Can a Cloud Hold Water? – Reflections

Why is this science?

There are several features that make this an episode of students, particularly Jordan and Elea, doing science.

First, they are recognizing and trying to articulate questions about whether and how a cloud holds water. Jordan first asked “what’s in a cloud that makes it hold the water” and then “how could water be in a cloud without falling?” Elea raised the related issue of weight: A cloud is “light as a feather,” so how could it hold heavy water.

Second, they are holding each other accountable to sensible, consistent reasoning. Jordan and Elea insist that there’s a question to answer, how a cloud can hold water. When one student suggests that the water stays in a cloud because there is no gravity, Jordan argues there has to be gravity for water to fall.

Finally, they draw on evidence to support or challenge explanations. Alyssa does this, when she cites the experience of bumpiness when planes go through clouds, to challenge the idea that clouds are necessarily light; Elea responds with other evidence that a cloud feels like air.

In these ways, students in this episode are trying to arrive at clear, sensible, consistent accounts of the phenomena of clouds and rain.

What contributed?

This episode stood out because it was, according to Mr. Myers, the first time these students began interacting directly with one another during their science inquiries. We describe below several factors that seem to have contributed.

The students took ownership of the inquiry
When we first saw this episode, we were struck by the dramatic shift in the third video. We later realized that this shift didn’t happen all at once, that the students had actually started to take ownership earlier.

The first moment was Jordan’s asking her own question, instead of responding to Mr. Myers’s prompt. Elea took up Jordan’s question, arguing against the idea that clouds hold water, and responding as well to Alyssa, although still directing her talk to the teacher. When Alyssa responded without acknowledging Jordan’s question, the girls stopped waiting to be called on and began speaking directly to each other. Soon the students were the leaders of the discussion, providing new ideas and evaluating each other’s contributions.

The students felt strongly about their questions
Jordan’s initial question emerged from her realizing there was something she did not understand, how a cloud can hold water. Elea saw it, too, but when others did not, especially Alyssa, Jordan and Elea became impassioned about getting them to recognize the problem. Their strong feelings spurred them to take greater ownership of the conversation, in particular to stop waiting for the teacher to call on them. That feistiness seemed to draw others into the conversation.

There are other aspects of students’ affect at play as well, such as the joy and excitement in formulating and expressing ideas freely and the feeling of accomplishment and pride in taking ownership of the conversation.

The students’ knowledge and abilities
Perhaps most obviously, the students had relevant knowledge and abilities to pose these questions and to start to think about possible answers.

What they know about how physical objects behave, from everyday experience, if they apply it to clouds and rain, raises these questions. Heavy things fall if there is nothing holding them up. How can clouds hold water up? Clouds are nothing like containers — they don’t have a “wall” or a “patch”; they are airy. How can clouds be light and hold water, which is heavy?

They also have knowledge for starting to think about the question, such as that water can turn into a gas and then “back into water” (that is a liquid). They know that something about clouds can make an airplane ride very bumpy, so perhaps there is more to clouds than it seems.

Finally, they know how to engage in this other kind of activity, in the give-and-take of lively conversation. They can listen to each others’ ideas, assess and respond with reasoning and evidence, at least at this beginning level. If they haven’t been doing this in class, it is not for lack of ability.