*This article was featured in our Trail Break – Winter 2021 edition
Tucked among the stout pines and firs on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe is a large yurt surrounded by miles of Nordic trails. In a normal year, hundreds of local K-12 students make the trek to this yurt from their schools and classrooms at the nearby Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. This is Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships’ Winter Discovery Center, one of over 70 Winter Wildlands Alliance SnowSchool sites across the North American snowbelt. Throughout the winter months, students focus on exploring hands-on science, wildlife monitoring, winter ecology, snowpack analysis, winter survival skills and other snow science investigations that connect to classroom science curriculum.
At WWA’s National SnowSchool Conference (all virtual) this past November, SWEPs Program Director Ashley Phillips described the changes underway for the new realities of the 20/21 winter season.
“Teachers will sign up with us to join their virtual classroom to ours and we will deliver an adapted version of our traditional program.”
Operating out of the Winter Discovery Center yurt (equipped with Wi-Fi, laptops, video cameras and snow science equipment) the adapted version of SnowSchool will feature educators presenting virtually to students and prompting kids at home to go out into their backyards to, for example, collect samples of snow for experiments and other hands-on science activities. The goal is to lean heavily on technology, but still honor the most essential goal of SnowSchool — connecting kids to the outdoors and the wildness of winter.
SWEPs is directly involved with WWA’s SnowSchool at Home project. To meet the challenges of the current winter, we and our partners have rolled out an entire winter-long series of outdoor science activities that can be completed in a snow-covered backyard, park or schoolyard. Short videos demonstrate hands-on activities such as examining snow crystals or identifying animal tracks, and then prompt students to go outside and find examples in the wild! In a future, non-pandemic winter, these resources will help create a much needed connection between field trip experiences and the students’ home and family life.
In February of 2020, Kurt Ikeda joined the National Park Service as the Education Specialist at three parks in Southern Idaho, including Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, a longtime SnowSchool site that annually engages hundreds of students in southern Idaho. “I grew up in LA, and this is my first real winter ever, so I’m very excited to be leading SnowSchool as a novice!” An upcoming WWA SnowSchool professional development session for Kurt and all the interpretive staff at Craters of the Moon will focus on the SnowSchool hands-on science curriculum.
Since 1999, Fletcher Andrews has been distributing snowshoes for Mountain Safety Research (MSR). Over the years, MSR has helped SnowSchool sites across the country by providing thousands of discounted — and even donated — snowshoes to programs across the country, helping introduce kids to the magic of on-snow exploration. “We’re glad we can contribute by providing kids and communities with our snowshoes and snow tools,” he says. “SnowSchool is such a unique program, and we’ve absolutely valued the opportunity to support the mission of getting kids outdoors and making it fun to learn on so many levels.”
Megan Mason is a snow scientist working with the NASA SnowEx campaign. In addition to collecting snowpack data in the field, Megan has helped with the procurement of citizen science data and is helping SnowSchool finalize data collected by students as part of last year’s citizen snow science project with NASA SnowEx. “It’s really hard to measure snow because it varies throughout the season and the location you are measuring,” she says. “Because of these challenges, SnowEx is especially appreciative of collaboration efforts to acquire more snow observations. Citizen science from all ages has allowed us to gap fill our data sets and offers more insight between snow storms and melt cycles.
Thank you so much for letting us come and have a great time, which I did. I learned all about the outdoors and even more about snow! I also learned how to put on snowshoes but am still working on it. But I had an awesome time and will remember it forever.