Imagine young students bundling up in winter clothing, strapping on snowshoes, and trekking to a site with thick snowpack where a volunteer instructor cuts out a refrigerator-sized block of snow. If the block stays coherent, the instructor asks the kids to jump on it until it fails, making them tumble into a flurry of snow. Together, the teacher and students measure the density and dimensions of the snow block to calculate its weight, which can be nearly as heavy as a car. By experiencing this mini avalanche, the students might begin to fathom what a real one might feel like.
This snow stability test is among the many experiments that SnowSchool, a nationwide program run by the nonprofit Winter Wildlands Alliance, uses to seed K–12 students’ interest in science and outdoor education. The curriculum integrates the local ecology for each of 81 active sites across the United States and uses snow as the medium to engage students, said Kerry McClay, SnowSchool’s national director.
More than half of SnowSchool’s students come from underserved populations, including numerous Title I schools—schools with at least 40% enrollment from low-income families. “Every community where a SnowSchool site is located is different,” McClay said. Some sites serve tribal communities on reservations. Another site ferries students from Oakland, Calif., to the Sierra Nevada, a rather lengthy trip that takes at least 3 hours.
Because SnowSchool is heavily subsidized by grants and fueled by donations, participation is often free, said McClay. The program provides gear, including snowshoes and winter clothing for students; resources and training for volunteers; and curricula for teachers. Interested schools simply need to apply and provide buses to transport students to their SnowSchool sites.
The more than 35,000 students in the program might explore how snowpack forms and melts, build igloos, or track wildlife, said McClay. A favorite activity of the students—many of whom have never seen the deep snowpack of the mountains—is sliding on their bellies through drifts. This fusion of fun science and snow “ignite[s] that sense of wonder and lets kids explore…with their curiosity in the driver’s seat,” said McClay.
An especially illuminating experiment, he said, begins with the classic kid activity of digging a hole in snow. The instructors and students begin by digging a trench through the snowpack, down to where the snow meets the ground, sometimes 6 feet deep (nearly 2 meters), said HP Marshall, a snow scientist and professor at Boise State University who helps design materials and train volunteers for SnowSchool. “It’s like looking at tree rings,” he explained, except instead of years, each layer in the snow pit signifies a discrete weather event. The students learn to identify the previous night’s soft snow, last week’s snowstorm, and last month’s ice crust left by a rainy day.
Then the students get macroscopes—like microscopes, but with a large viewing area—and they look at the changing snow crystals. “It’s like a whole other universe,” said Marshall.
Digging the trench serves as a window into ice core climate research, said Marshall, and lets instructors start discussions about how scientists study climate change. In the world of climate research, scientists drill many kilometers down, extracting deep ice cores that help researchers see what the climate was like and how it changed many hundreds or even thousands of years back.
Another SnowSchool project is a crowdsourced science initiative conducted in collaboration with NASA’s SnowEx program. In this project, students from SnowSchool collect snow data on the ground that will ultimately help calibrate satellite data.
No Snow, No SnowSchool?
Near Boise, Idaho, the flagship SnowSchool site at the nonprofit Bogus Basin recreation area and ski resort beckons. At this location, students sometimes come from predominantly Latinx agricultural communities and typically have not spent much time in a snowy environment, said Marshall. By focusing on water availability, he viscerally links water to everyday life for students steeped in cultivating crops. Students learn the role snow plays in the water cycle, which gives them tools to talk about snow and water with their families. “Snow water resources,” Marshall said, “are so impacted by climate change.”
With the uptick in extreme events, the snowpack atop mountains is more variable and melts faster, said McClay. “Eighty percent of our water is coming from melted snow,” he said. Students see trends with snow-sourced data and begin to consider the repercussions for water supply, irrigation, agriculture, or fires. “The list goes on.”
Unfortunately, Marshall admitted, “people that live too far from the mountains can’t really engage with this program.” For these communities, “the SnowSchool organization put a lot of effort into videos and online material,” in part as a response to travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his visits to classrooms, Marshall has found that even a cooler filled with snow excites kids. “They want to have snowball fights, [or] see how long they can stick their hands in [it],” he said. McClay is hopeful that as SnowSchool expands, students everywhere can engage in the program—as long as there’s access to snow.
“SnowSchool,” said McClay, “is not as effective without snow.”
—Alka Tripathy-Lang (@DrAlkaTrip), Science Writer