This winter SnowSchool introduced tens of thousands of diverse kids to the wonders of winter and the joys of snowshoeing in communities across the country.  But as everyone is abundantly aware, nearly all education programs and schools in the US were shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course this meant SnowSchool as well.  WWA’s immediate response was to rapidly compile some initial “HomeSchool SnowSchool” resources for parents to use with their kids in snow covered backyards and nearby outdoor spaces.  Then, as K-12 teachers began to use virtual classrooms to finish the school year, we adapted our Snowpack Prediction Contest to support teachers’ web-based approach to learning.

The concept of contest is relatively simple: Following their winter outing, the students are challenged to make a prediction about the amount of snow their local mountains will receive during the coming winter, with prizes given out for the most accurate predictions.  Using decades of historical snowpack data provided in collaboration with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL weather stations, students calculate averages and analyze recent precipitation trends to make informed predictions.  Specifically, SnowSchool asks students “what do you think the maximum snowpack depth measurement and the maximum snow water equivalency measurement will be over the course of the winter?” This activity generally simulates the approach snow hydrologists take when making snowpack and streamflow forecasts.  Once predictions are submitted the students and teachers track winter storms, snow accumulation and melting using online resources well into April, May and early June.  The result is a 3-4 month learning experience and science project that kids love!  This year the project concluded with video presentations that examine what happened in each community, what snowpack levels (drought vs abundance) mean for the students local community and the impact of climate change on mountain snow. Extending students’ learning experience and connecting it back to the classroom in this manner ensures that SnowSchool makes good on its aspiration to foster ecological literacy among our youngest generation.

Snow is fun, but its also a lot more than that: 75-80% of the annual water supply in the Western US comes from mountain snow. This includes water that’s used for household purposes, agriculture irrigation, hydro-power and summer recreation. Scientists have been monitoring mountain snow for decades and during the SnowSchool field trip students learn about snow science instruments, and visit their local weather station (when possible).

While SnowSchool has always been about harnessing the power of snow to connect kids with nature, one potential problem with school field trips can be a lack of connection to further learning.  The Snowpack Prediction Contest was originally designed to help reverse the trend of the “one and done” field trip model.  Even if outdoor experiences generate lots of enthusiasm among students, if there is little or no connection back to the classroom the result can be a weak experiential program that misses an enormous opportunity to spark further science exploration.  To address this problem, in 2015 WWA and the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station launched a new weather station project and accompanying science curriculum with the goal of  providing teachers with a uniquely powerful and easy to use classroom resource.  The result created a fun 4-month learning experience (now know as the Snowpack Prediction Contest) and in the seasons since the initial pilot WWA has expanded the weather station project to dozens of communities and thousands of SnowSchool students across the country.