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What Is the Water Cycle?

Author(s): Nancy P. Moreno, PhD, Barbara Z. Tharp, MS, and Judith Dresden, MS.

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Scientist often use models, which can have many different functions. Models frequently are used to explain difficult concepts and to make concepts more tangible. Scientists also use models to make and test predictions. 

In this activity, students will create and observe a simple model of the water cycle, predict the behavior of the model, draw and label the model, and draw conclusions from their experience. The model can be built from a clear plastic shoe box or storage box, or from a cardboard shoe box lined with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. To line the shoebox, press a single sheet of aluminum foil or plastic along the bottom and up the sides of the box. Do not cover the top of the box with foil for the original investigation (you may wish to allow students to design different models later, in which they may decide to cover the top of the box with something like aluminum foil.) 

Discuss the model with the class. Ask, Which part of the box and its contents could represent land? Which part could represent snow or ice on the top of a mountain? After students have constructed the model, ask them to predict what will happen inside of the shoe box once it is placed in a sunny spot. If a window is not available, you can place the box under a lamp with an incandescent bulb. Make sure the box is close enough to receive the bulb’s heat, but not close enough to melt or burn the plastic. 

Tell students to fold a piece of paper in half, hamburger style (paper should go from being 8 ½” by 11” to 8 ½” by 5 ½”), and draw a side view of what their prediction would look like on the top half of the folded paper. Have students periodically observe their boxes over several hours. After several hours, ask each student to record what the box looks like on the bottom half of his or her sheet.


Funded by the following grant(s)

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

The Environment as a Context for Opportunities in Schools
Grant Numbers: 5R25ES010698, R25ES06932


Houston Endowment Inc.

Houston Endowment Inc.

Foundations for the Future: Capitalizing on Technology to Promote Equity, Access and Quality in Elementary Science Education