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SnowSchool Field Report! December 14th 2017

By Kerry McClay

While its still technically the “pre-season”, many SnowSchool sites are working hard to train leaders for the coming winter.  This is especially true at sites that rely heavily on volunteer educators, such as Discover Your Forest in Bend OR.  This past week I headed over to Mt Bachelor (the site of DYF’s SnowSchool program) to provide a professional development workshop for 25 staff and volunteer educators.  And while many of the training sessions I provide each year tend to focus on experiential education for elementary students, this training focused on WWA’s unique middle/high school science curriculum.

Of course, we all remember our high school snow science class, right? Yep, didn’t think so.  Even though mountain snow supplies up to 80% of the water in many communities in the western United States, it remains an understudied and overlooked topic. To fill this void we partnered with NASA snow scientists in 2014 to develop a unique curriculum especially for older students based on modern field techniques.  For example, participants in this program calculate snow/water equivalent (the water content of the snow) with density cutters and spring scales (left) and also examine snow crystal morphology with high powered macro-scopes (below). The result has created repeat SnowSchool experiences for middle and high school that builds on their same initial science adventure they completed as elementary school kids.  

This programmatic addition is great fit at a SnowSchool site like Discover Your Forest, which annually engages over 2,000 elementary students from the Bend Oregon area.  Karen Gentry (DYF Education Director) and Bess Ballantine (DYF Education and Stewardship Coordinator) reached out to WWA to request support in developing this program to serve students in their community.  In addition to supplying the SnowSchool curriculum and activity guide, I was able to travel to Bend to provide a free training for the DYF volunteers and educators.  This included a classroom presentation on core concepts and a field day filled with hands-on science based on NASA field techniques!

At this point you may be asking, “Why is NASA involved in snow science?”   And the answer is pretty interesting… Snow science as a field has emerged relatively recently as questions about the Cryosphere (the snow and ice covered areas of the world) have become increasingly important over the past half-century.  Technology innovations have accelerated interest in improving the scientific community’s ability to estimate the water content of certain snow and ice covered areas (such as local watersheds and polar ice caps).  This is becoming increasingly relevant as climate change reduces polar ice and appears to be altering traditional local snowfall patterns.   To reduce our dependence on outdated historical snowpack data trends NASA is developing the capacity to estimate the water content of a snowpack using radar from aircraft (like a helicopter), and eventually from an orbiting satellite.  But accomplishing this goal requires scientists to first improve their knowledge of the snowpack itself.  In January 2014 at the Fraser Experimental Forest the NASA Snow Working Group held its’ first ever field workshop to improve scientists’ knowledge of snow.  Atmospheric scientists, physicists, geologists, engineers, statisticians (and one curriculum specialist!) all spent five days neck deep in the Colorado snow making careful hand tool measurements and gaining a greater appreciation of the complexities of a mountain snowpack.  This field course formed the foundation of the SnowSchool snow science curriculum for middle and high school students.

The purpose of the SnowSchool program has always been to give kids a rich hands-on learning experience that connects them with their local ecosystem.  Exploring their local winter wildlands on snowshoes is fun and helps kids build an emotional connection to the natural world.  By studying the same snow that will eventually supply their homes and communities with water in the spring and summer months, SnowSchool is helping kids create a personal connection with, and interest in, real science.

Kerry McClay, Ed.D. is WWA’s National SnowSchool Director

Contact him at kmcclay@winterwildlands.org for more information

Silence is the Think Tank of the Soul

“Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has spent the past 35 years recording natural soundscapes. His work has taken him around the world and into some of the least densely populated places. His hope is that we will fall back in love with planet Earth if we start listening. In lyrical short film Being Hear, filmmakers Palmer Morse and Matt Mikkelsen capture Hempton in his element as he shares the importance of preserving the silence. To experience the full range of nature’s orchestra, headphones are highly recommended.” — National Geographic Short Film Showcase

“For most of his life, Gordon Hempton has been in pursuit of nature’s myriad and multi-faceted soundscapes as an Emmy-winning acoustic ecologist. During that time, he has become a master of a skill that is inarguably a dying art: listening. In this short film, he shares insights on the constant and nuanced communications of nature, the alarming extinction of places unaffected by human activity, the way quiet can open our eyes to the larger picture and the benefits of simply paying attention to place. Silence, as he puts it, “is the think tank of the soul.” — Telluride Mountainfilm

Visit BeingHear.com and follow the film on Facebook.

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SnowSchool: Local Lands, Local Leaders

By Kerry McClay

Winter is nearly upon us and that means SnowSchool sites across the country are gearing up to engage thousands of kids in an exploration of snow covered public lands!  And while we often talk about SnowSchool in these big-picture terms, of critical importance are the individual educators and leaders who make these programs happen in dozens of communities across the country. For example, our SnowSchool site in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah- Cottonwood Canyons Foundation– recently brought Katie Burbank onboard as their new Education Director. To highlight the importance of local leadership, I’ve included below an excerpt from my interview with Katie. Her inspiring story illustrates the impact WWA can have on individuals and communities through the combination of our programs.

 

KM- Welcome to SnowSchool Katie! Can you tell us the story of how you got involved?

KB- I had always thought that my love of nature would guide me to a career path protecting our environment.  However, my curiosity of the natural world led me to a PhD program at Montana State University, and subsequently, a position teaching chemistry at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Recently, I found myself re-visiting the notion of focusing my efforts on our public lands.   This past winter I was up in McCall, ID for a ski race and attended the WWA Backcountry Film Festival.  One of the films was about SnowSchool. I was incredibly inspired and thought to myself, “Now, that is something that I would really like to get involved in.”  As luck would have it, a month later, Cottonwood Canyons Foundation advertised that they were seeking a new Education Director who would oversee the Salt Lake City site for SnowSchool.  I wound up getting the position, dove head first into a pretty drastic career change, and am so glad I did.

KM- Why do you think it is important to have programs like CCF’s SnowSchool to get kids outside?

KB- While CCF is a non-political organization, I feel that environmental education is a very important component of advocacy. If we can get kids outside and teach them, I believe that it is more likely that they will feel connected to the outdoors when they grow up. Specifically for CCF, by introducing kids to the unique environment and incredible biodiversity of the Cottonwood Canyons, we hope to cultivate a sense of ownership for these public lands.  Additionally, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons provide 60% of the drinking water for the Salt Lake Valley.  By connecting our local youth to the mountains that are their watershed, we hope that they will become aware of the importance of protecting this area for their community’s health and for future generations to enjoy.

KM- What excites you about CCF’s SnowSchool program?

KB- I grew up in a more urban focused family.  It wasn’t until I attended a sleep away camp in the wilderness of Northern California that I cultivated my own connection to nature.  Many of the students that we take snowshoeing have lived in the Salt Lake Valley their entire lives but have never been up to the Canyons.  I love being the one who introduces them to this new environment.  I hope that their experience with the program gives some of them the same spark that I had when I first discovered the magical world of nature.

KM- What do you personally like to do outdoors?

KB- I pretty much live and breathe backcountry skiing.  I just love it.  So much so that I even wound up marrying my ski partner. It has been a real treat to live next to the Wasatch Mountains. In the summer, I like to mountain bike and trail run, but mostly so that I can be outside in the mountains and stay in shape for skiing. 

 

-Kerry McClay is National SnowSchool Director with Winter Wildlands Alliance

To find out more about SnowSchool and all our amazing sites click here!

 

 

 

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Genesis

DPS Skis Cinematic

Genesis

A trio of powder professors ascend Alaska’s Chugach, rising above the desolate and rain-soaked primordial soup of lower elevations, and evolving upwards into the purple-hued peaks that tower above the clouds — a world of brilliant color and life. The mountains become the laboratory in which they embark upon extensive study and experimentation, in order to form theories on some of mankind’s oldest questions: how did life begin, and what makes this life worth living?

DPS Skis Cinematic | 5 min 50 sec