NASA Science
Time 15-30 minutes
Age 4 and up
Group Size Any
Tags Air, Arithmetic, Clouds,   more...
Estimating Experiment Math Measurement Meteorology Mirror NASA Nature Observation Paper Science Shadow Sky Weather Wind

Make your own scientific instrument!

Some of the most important tools that scientists use are the simplest ones.  By giving children a chance to make the tools that they will use, they can gain insight into how these instruments work and can then investigate the world around them.  In this activity, children will create what has to be the simplest scientific instrument of all – a tool called a nephoscope that helps scientists determine the direction that clouds are moving, which also tells them the direction that the wind is blowing above them.


Gather all materials and make sure that your compass is working.  If you do not have a compass, find a way to determine which direction is North.  You might have your students help you with this.  What direction does the sun rise in?  What direction does it set in?  See Suggestions below for some ways to find North without a compass.


Suggested Materials

  • Small “craft” mirrors (15)
  • Construction paper
  • Pens, pencils or markers
  • Scissors
  • Invisible tape

Optional Materials

  • 1 compass

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion

Ask your students if they have ever looked at clouds before.  Have they ever seen “shapes” in the clouds?  What sorts of things have they seen?  Aside from the shapes we can imagine seeing in them, are there other things that clouds can tell us? Encourage a discussion about how the shape, and movement of clouds can give us clues as to the weather that is in our near future.

The Challenge

Create your own cloud viewer and figure out what direction the wind is blowing.


Make it Happen

Doing the Activity

  1. Divide your class into teams of 2 for this activity.
  2. Each team will need a mirror, scissors, a piece of construction paper and a pen, pencil or marker.
  3. A nephoscope is simply a mirror that the user points facing North. To construct this cloud viewer, teams should cut a piece of paper that is the same size as the mirror, then they should cut a large hole in the middle of the paper.  Next, tape the paper to the reflective side of the mirror, so they can see the mirror through the hole in the paper. Finally, write “N” at the top (see Figure 1).
  4. Bring the teams outside and have them place their nephoscopes on the ground with the reflective side facing up toward the sky.  Ask them to look at their cloud viewers and see what they notice.

Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It

After a few minutes of using their cloud viewers, bring the whole group together to talk about what they observed. What did they notice when they looked at the clouds through their viewers? Is there a way they might use these instruments to tell them which direction the wind is blowing? How might that be helpful? This discussion should only last a few minutes.

Depending on the age of your students, you may want to have a discussion about the directions North, South, East and West.  Ask your students if they know some of the directions that the wind might blow and have them name at least the four mentioned above.

Nephoscopes are used by scientists to determine the direction, altitude and speed that clouds are moving. This nephoscope is more simple and just tells the direction that clouds are moving, but this can be useful information. Wind at ground level can swirl around because of obstacles like hills and buildings, so it is sometimes difficult to tell the true direction of the wind. By looking at the direction the wind is traveling higher in the atmosphere, we can determine where any weather (like clouds in the distance) is coming from.


Make it Better

Build On What They Talked About

After the group discussion, have teams return to their cloud viewers, but this time ask them to all place their viewers on the ground with the “N” facing North. Ask them to now look at their viewers and figure out which direction the wind is blowing. If, for example, they look in their mirror and see the clouds above them moving from the bottom of the mirror up toward where the “N” is written, then the wind is blowing to the North, from the South. Come to an agreement among the group as to which direction the wind is blowing in.


  • Check out NASA and NOAA’s cloud chart here:
  • EarthSky ( has lots of great resources on sky viewing, like videos, news stories, and, in particular, some stunning photos here:
  • Try playing Captain’s Coming (from this curriculum), but change the directions so that children use “North, South, East and West” instead of “Bow, Stern, Starboard and Port” as directions.  You could also introduce other new rules that relate to the wind or weather (see “Suggestions” from the Captain’s Coming instructions for ideas).
  • There are a few ways to find the direction North without using a compass.  Here are some:

The Shadow-Tip Method

  1. Poke a dowel or a straight stick into the ground and make a mark on the ground where the tip of the shadow reaches. You can place a rock or some other object there that won’t blow away.
  2. Wait at least 15 minutes.
  3. Make another mark or place another small rock where the tip of the stick’s shadow is now.
  4. Draw a straight line in the ground through the two marks or rocks.
  5. Stand with the first mark or rock on your left (this will be West), and the other on your right (this will be East). You will be facing approximately toward the north. To be even more accurate, wait longer between the shadow markings and make a third mark as well.

The Watch Method (only works in the Northern hemisphere)

  1. Find a watch with hour and minute hands. Place it on a level surface and point the hour hand at the sun.
  2. Find the middle point between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark — this is either North or South. To figure out which, look at the sun. If it is late in the day, the sun should be on your left if you are facing North. If it is early in the day, it should be to your right if you are facing North.
  • Other methods include using the stars or the moon, and of course you can approximate by figuring out where the sun rises from and sets from – the sun rises to the East and sets to the West.


Earth and Space science activities were developed with the support of NASA. This material is based upon work supported by NASA under grant award number NNX14AQ83G. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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