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