Activity 4:The Water Cycle

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
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.



Activity 4: The Water Cycle is part of Introduction to the Atmosphere, which is Section 1 of the Cycles of the Earth and Atmosphere module created by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.  This module consists of lesson plans and supplemental materials created specifically for middle school teachers.  In The Water Cycle, a model is used to investigate the various components of the cycle.  The directions are written as a classroom demonstration; however, with sufficient supplies, groups of students could each construct their own model.  The activity provides observational questions and sample answers.  In addition, assessment ideas, which include an additional challenge, have been provided. The lesson plan can be completed in 1 to 2 days.  

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS2-4 Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth's systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the ways water changes its state as it moves through the multiple pathways of the hydrologic cycle. Examples of models can be conceptual or physical.

Assessment Boundary: A quantitative understanding of the latent heats of vaporization and fusion is not assessed.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The Water Cycle describes a simple, but effective model that allows students to explore and explain the science of this system. Teachers could provide students with the step by step directions outlined in the activity; however, in this case, students would be using, and not developing, a model. Since middle school students are already somewhat familiar with the water cycle, they should be able to design their own models, using the materials provided by the teacher. This change in procedure will bring the activity closer in alignment to the Performance Expectation. Energy from the Sun is modeled in the system through the use of the lamp; the role of gravity is not as obvious and teachers will need to ask leading questions about both the condensed water on the film or the purpose of the mountain in the model as a means of focusing student attention on gravity’s role in the water cycle. Further discussion for the role of gravity is addressed in a PowerPoint that can be download from: It is identified as “Presentation” under the “Water Falls: Pre-Visit Lesson”. Upon completion of this activity, teachers may also wish to summarize salient points of the lesson by showing the NASA video: ESW2009: Water, Water Everywhere (

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In this activity, students are using, not developing, a model of the water cycle. As noted in the discussion of the Performance Expectation, middle school students are already familiar with the water cycle; therefore, they should be able to design their own models, using materials provided by the teacher. If students do construct the model using the directions contained in the activity, teachers should avoid any over explanation of phenomenon. Teachers must leave it to their students to make sense of their own observations in order to achieve mastery of the concepts involved. During the activity, teachers should ensure that students are recording their observations, either as labeled sketches or in written format. Without this information, students may have difficulties answering the questions contained in the activity.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The model used in the activity incorporates the key concepts of evaporation, condensation and precipitation through the use of both the light source and ice cubes. Students will soon grasp that the heat from the lamp provides the energy for evaporation and that the cooling ice cubes lead to condensation. Once the condensed water drops become heavy enough, “precipitation” should ensue. Transpiration, while part of the Disciplinary Core Idea, is not part of the model. If teachers wish to include this concept, they might consider the simple demonstration found in Transpiration: How Much Water Does a Tree Transpire in One Day? (

Crosscutting Concepts

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
Students will be able to track the flow of matter within the system as they watch the condensation of the water vapor result in precipitation. If students question the role of the lamp in the model, or doubt that it is providing energy to the system, teachers could challenge them to think of a modification to the model that could test the validity of this claim. An acceptable answer would include the suggestion of a second model that does not include a lamp for comparison purposes. The lesson does not emphasize the role of gravity; teachers are referred to the Powerpoint mentioned in the Performance Expectation.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity incorporates all three dimensions of NGSS. In this lesson plan, students utilize the Scientific Practice of Developing and Using Models to explore and explain the phenomenon of the water cycle. Students will use the model to monitor the phase changes as described in the Disciplinary Core Idea and can manipulate the model to track the Crosscutting Concept of both Energy and Matter. In the case of the water cycle, students investigate how energy transfer in the form of heat and gravity drive the entire system.

  • Instructional Supports: Through use of the model described in the activity, students will be engaged in an authentic scenario that replicates the phenomenon of the water cycle in a practical manner for middle school students. The model is scientifically accurate and grade appropriate. There is a single tip for differentiation; however, it provides little guidance for the classroom teacher. Teachers will need to create opportunities for students to express their opinions and receive feedback; however, if student groups are allowed to construct the model, as opposed to watching a demonstration, then opportunities for interaction should naturally evolve.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Although the activity includes some questions for students to answer, embedded formative assessments are not included. Aligned rubrics and scoring guidelines are also absent. Teachers might be able to observe evidence of three dimensional learning by monitoring information and explanations recorded in student journals.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This lesson plan does not have a technological component.