Spring SnowSchool: Students Track Changing Mountain Snow

By Kerry McClay, May 21st 2018

This winter SnowSchool has introduced tens of thousands of diverse kids to the wonders of winter and the joys of snowshoeing in communities across the country! And 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.  While an outdoor experience might generate lots of enthusiasm among students, if there is little or no connection back to the classroom the result can be a weak “one-and-done” experiential program that misses an enormous opportunity to spark further science exploration.  In 2015 WWA and the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station launched a new weather station project and accompanying science curriculum to help solve this problem by 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 a dozen of communities and thousands of SnowSchool students across the country!

The concept is simple: Following their snowshoe 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 in January/February the students and teachers track winter storms, snow accumulation and melting well into April and May.  The result is a 3-4 month learning experience and science project that kids love!  The project concludes with classroom presentations that examine what happened, 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.

Below are some snapshots from the 2018 Snowpack Prediction Contest:

Field activities like digging a snowpit to measure snowpack depth (above) and the snow/water equivalency experiment (below) help students understand the relationship between mountain snow and their water supply, and prepare them for the follow-up weather station project.

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).

Back in their K-12 classroom the students use special webpages created by WWA that displays live and historical NRCS SNOTEL data (above).  When their analysis is complete, students and teachers submit their predictions to SnowSchool online.

As the winter progresses students track snowpack accumulation (and melt) and compare their predictions to other students.  Snow hydrologists track the “Water Year” from October 1st to September of the following year.  Of high interest to the science community and steamflow forecasters is peak snow water equivalency over this time period.

In April and May the contest concludes with classroom science presentations that examine what happened over the course of the winter in the students’ local watershed.  Students compare current snowpack levels with historical norms.

During the project wrap-up students interpret snowpack maps via NRCS SNOTEL that display snowpack levels by watershed across the Western US.  Students discuss the geo-spatial variability of mountain snow and impacts drought (red/orange) or abundance (blue) might bring to specific communities. Click image for more information.

Prizes are given out for the closest predictions!  Above, a winning classroom poses in celebration while wearing their new Snow Ranger Bandannas.

Nationally, in 2018 weather station Snowpack Prediction Contest participation spread to 12 SnowSchool sites engaging 76 classrooms (50% increase from 2017).  WWA is aiming to expand again in 2018-19.  Interest in getting involved or bringing this experience to your community?  Contact Kerry McClay at kmcclay@winterwildlands.org

-Kerry McClay, Ed.D.

WWA National SnowSchool Director

Learn more at www.snowschool.org