Winter Wildland Observations: SnowSchool Edition

I moved to Sandpoint, Idaho just over a month ago to work a winter season with Selkirk Outdoor Leadership & Education (SOLE) to grow as an outdoor educator.  Already two weeks into SOLE’s SnowSchool Experience SM Program,  and it’s been a blast getting students out and about exploring and learning in their backyards – even in the dead of winter.  SOLE’s SnowSchool Experience Program is part of the nation’s largest on-snow outdoor education program in partnership with the Winter Wildland’s Alliance.

10259230_1026398230716244_9085658990807065617_oOne of the goals of the nationally developed program is to encourage students to develop an affinity with their local environs and gain a better understanding of the importance of mountain snowpack and its relationship to their local community resources.  Encouraging students to make earnest, personal observations is a crucial part of that process.  As an educator, it can be a challenge to elicit such responses—Often students are challenged to differentiate between “identifying,” and “observing.”  For example, pointing at the ground, and asking students what they observe, students often say simply “snow,” and not “cold, sugary looking stuff.”

Here are a couple of tricks I have found to work well in the field:

  1.  Give the students a reason to look beyond the obvious.  Try showing students two similar specimens and asking them if they are the same species? Why or why not? Which one is better at growing here? How do you know?  Encouraging these connections gives students a reason to remember what they’ve seen and look beyond what they know, and gives them a chance to relate that information to the ecosystem at large.
  2.  Encourage students to ask the three following questions about your specimen outloud:
  3. “What do you notice about it?”
  4. “What do you wonder about it?”
  5. “What does it reminds you of?”  

These questions have been shown to encourage deeper engagement and personal connections between students and subject matter.   

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 2.56.32 PMAs part of the SnowSchool curriculum, students use magnifying loops to observe snowflakes to make connections to Snow-Water Equivalency (SWE) in the snowpack.  Using these prompts will encourage students to make more creative connections that will be more easily remembered later.  Rather than saying that the snow crystals “look like snow” or “look icy,” using these prompts will encourage more personal responses such as “reminds me of a pepsi can” or my personal favorite from the last course, “reminds me of smushed together crystal turdballs.”  While these answers might seem silly and off topic, they are actually indicative of a deeper cognitive process of connection-making students are involved in.   When teaching in the field, there are few things more disheartening than prompting students to make observations and getting responses that limit exploration.  These strategies will help minimize that possibility, and they will encourage students to have better recall when thinking back on their time in the field from the classroom.

Student observing snow crystals or “pepsi cans” using a magnifying loop.

See you on the mountain,

David Harris, BS
Intern Field Instructor
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SnowSchool Experience Program receives national attention!


SOLE’s SnowSchool Experience SM Program is once again in full swing fostering numerous opportunities for youth throughout the Inland Northwest to experience the transformational place-based experiential education curriculum that this program has become known for!  From after-school programs to custom-tailored outings for schools and youth groups, SOLE continues to strive to offer a SnowSchool Experience SM programs for all stakeholders throughout the Inland Northwest, and beyond!

Because of this program over 60% of youth participants are able to explore and learn about their local winter wildlands for the first time via snowshoes.

10259230_1026398230716244_9085658990807065617_oFor the 2016 season SOLE will once again be working with Lake Pend Oreille School District (LPOSD) where every 5th grade student will receive a SnowSchool Experience SM thanks in part to a $10,000 Panhandle Alliance for Education (PAFE) grant.  This will result to over (250) youth participants in this program alone for the 2016 season!

But it doesn’t stop there.  SOLE will working with other local area schools.  This will include designing and facilitating custom-tailored SnowSchool Experiences SM for Clark Fork Middle and High School (see video below), Post Falls STEM classroom, and Selle Valley Carden School.  SOLE will also be providing SnowSchool Experience SM programming for Lake Pend Oreille High School as part of a larger place-based experiential education program known as The Confluence Project.  This will include a capstone project where students will present their semester’s work at the Idaho Youth Water Summit at the University of Idaho.

Most SnowSchool Experience SM programs include a (3) day place-based experiential education design tailored to local watersheds and include snow science, winter ecology and outdoor living skills.  While it certainly is a fun day beyond classroom walls, this curriculum also includes the opportunity for alignment to state and national math and science standards ensuring that educators, and those they serve, receive an intentional outdoor education experience from start to finish.

We have some exciting new developments this year in our SnowSchool Experience SM program to include our new partnership with the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center (IPAC) and Gizmo – CDA.  These new partnerships will allow us to reach and teach more local area youth in novel ways during the winter months at one of our (4) SnowSchool Experience SM site locations in Washington, Idaho or Montana!

Specifically, our new partnership with Gizmo will allow us to offer a (4) day after-school SnowSchool Experience Programs at Lookout Pass.  True to our other SnowSchool Experiences SM students will learn snow science, winter ecology, and outdoor living and travel skills.  Course lessons will explore the relationship of mountain snowpack in our region to community natural resource needs through active and engaging fieldwork.  Coupled with pre and post lessons in the classroom, including accessing and utilizing SNOTEL, students will develop skills that reach well beyond their SnowSchool Experience SM. Because of the after-school design this novel program is perfect for parents of home-school youth, and those in youth groups interested in exploring and learning in their winter wildlands via snowshoe.  Learn more and register for this program here.

In addition, we are grateful to have IPAC assisting us with extending our current SnowSchool Experience  SM curriculum for middle and high school youth to include avalanche awareness in addition to our current established outdoor leadership, outdoor living and travel skills, snow science and winter ecology curriculum for these grade levels.  Like all SnowSchool Experiences SM curriculum allow students to explore and learn in their local mountain ecosystems. We recently launched a new short video capturing the extension of this novel SOLE Experience SM and it received national attention!  See the skinny here.  

Click on the video below to see what our middle and high school SnowSchool Experience SM Program is all about!

We continue to be sincerely grateful for our program partners which include the Winter Wildlands Alliance, Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Lookout Pass and Recreation Area, Mt Spokane and those mentioned above.  Learn more about our SnowSchool Experience SM Program by clicking here.