NOAA What-a-Cycle

NOAA - National Weather Service Southern Region
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Model , Interactive Simulation , Game
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Through role-playing as a particle of water, students gain an understanding of the complexity of the movement of water through earth’s systems. Stations are set-up for nine different water reservoirs associated with the water cycle. On each turn, students roll the dice at each station and either stay in place or move to a different location. Students track their unique journey through the water cycle to later share and discuss the strengths and limitations of the game as a model for the movement of water through Earth's systems.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 5
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

5-ESS2-1 Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.

Clarification Statement: Examples could include the influence of the ocean on ecosystems, landform shape, and climate; the influence of the atmosphere on landforms and ecosystems through weather and climate; and the influence of mountain ranges on winds and clouds in the atmosphere. The geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere are each a system.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to the interactions of two systems at a time.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This simulation gives students an opportunity to use a model to experience how the hydrosphere interacts with the geosphere, biosphere and atmosphere through the water cycle. To more explicitly show the movement of the water through the various spheres it is recommended teachers label each reservoir with the appropriate system (i.e. clouds - atmosphere, soil - geosphere, etc.) and evaluate the model afterwards for areas of improvement that may be student generated.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource was not designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
While students have not developed the model underlying the simulation, they can use it to look for interactions between the spheres. Once they have identified particular relationships, the model could be used to recognize patterns in the flow of water through the spheres and more complicated conceptual understanding of the water cycle and its reservoirs beyond the oft perceived notion of water flowing in one direction through the air and to the ground in a simple cycle. Lessons more deeply exploring this model may include students identifying and adding reservoirs (such as animals) into the model to "improve it" or students using the model to predict how a particle of water may move into or out of a given reservoir.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This model is best served for demonstrating how the hydrosphere is interconnected with the other major earth systems. Providing students additional opportunities to model such interactions more concretely (such as those percolating water through earth materials) will lead to students engaging in the DCI more thoroughly through investigation and constructing explanations for how or why water moves from one reservoir to another.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Ask students to argue, with evidence whether or not the water particle in this model is capable of leaving Earth's systems. Students should point to the fact that at no point is the water molecule created, nor is it destroyed, but is instead transported into and out of the different spheres without leaving Earth.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The model in this lesson is an opportunity for students to examine how the hydrosphere consists of many parts which are in turn connected to the other systems that make up Earth’s global system. To more specifically address this cross cutting concept, teachers may ask students to focus in on one particular reservoir and describe its role in Earth's systems by describing its interactions to other reservoirs present in the model.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Elements of the "Earth Systems" DCI through the modeling of a closed system in which matter circulates into and out of different parts of Earth's systems are evident in this lesson. Teachers are required to modify some of the materials and direct exploration and instruction more explicitly meet the full DCI and one or more of the crosscutting concepts suggested.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson engages students in age-appropriate sense-making of how water flows into and out of all of Earth's systems in a more complex way than traditional water cycle models. The gamification of a water particle's movement motivates students to look more critically at waters role on Earth, the complexity of its motion, and how their motions might have differed from their peers. The picture supports for each reservoir in both the model and worksheet are age appropriate and serve all students, particularly those who are English language learners, have special needs, or read well below the grade level. The instructional supports provided to the teacher in the resource do not overtly push students to participate in multiple practices that work together with disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts, leaving much for the teacher to work out on their own. While opportunities for students to connect their explanation of the model to their own life experiences are evident, they are not explicitly pointed in out in this resource, nor are the opportunities for students to express and clarify their understanding and respond to peer and teacher feedback. Unfortunately, there are no extensions provided for students with high interest or who have already met the performance expectations to develop deeper understanding.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The worksheet expected to be used by students Assessing student proficiency uses representations of water flow (via arrows) and examples of water reservoirs that are accessible and unbiased for all students. That being said, there is no instruction for teachers to elicit direct, observable evidence of three‐dimensional learning by students using practices with core ideas and crosscutting concepts to make sense of water's motion through Earth's systems. Formative assessments of three‐dimensional learning are not embedded throughout the instruction. No rubrics, scoring guidelines, or mention of assessment of student understanding are included.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: - none -