SnowSchool: Connecting Students to Snow, Water and Climate Science

    September 8, 2017
    by Kerry McClay

    Last month I drove into the mountains outside of Boise Idaho and, as I went, I passed by the Nordic center that houses our local SnowSchool site. The tall wooden building stood quietly on the mountain slope, like a ponderosa pine patiently waiting the arrival of snow. But it was still August and there would be no 5th grade snowshoers exploring the mountain quite yet. A few miles further down the winding dirt road, I parked, got out and scrambled up a remote mountain ridge with some friends and family. We, along with millions of other Americans, waited excitedly for the coming solar eclipse. While the dimming light across the forest landscape and dropping temperatures reminded me a bit of a winter’s day in the mountains, no poetic analogy could have replaced the unique experience of the eclipse. It was an incredible sight, and afterwards I felt reaffirmed in my belief that experiences in nature have the power to awaken a sense of wonder in all of us. I also felt re-inspired about the goals of our expanding national SnowSchool program and our work to harness the magic of snow to get underserved kids outside and excited about nature and science. And though I’m proud of what we’ve achieved with SnowSchool thus far, perhaps it was the sheer grandness of the eclipse that left me feeling that everything we’ve created to date is just a scratch on the surface of possibility.

    The story of Winter Wildlands Alliance’s SnowSchool program begins in 2001 with the establishment of a simple winter recreation program designed to introduce diverse groups of kids to snowshoeing and get them outside and active during the months when they are most often sedentary. However, as SnowSchool evolved and expanded we made an important discovery: The mountain snowpack is a uniquely exciting learning environment. Kids simply love snow and when students get the opportunity to explore their local mountain snowpack on snowshoes their excitement and motivation for engaging in science is dramatically enhanced. Additionally, a snow-covered National Forest or Park is perfect for hands-on learning and allows students to explore off-trail, complete a snow-pit analysis, climb inside an igloo, follow animal tracks, conduct a snow-water equivalency experiment and investigate this amazing ecosystem with their curiosity in the driver’s seat. Simply put, the SnowSchool experience leaves kids inspired, curious and wanting more!

    Winter Wildlands Alliance partners with local organizations and provides key resources necessary to bring this proven and powerful experience to “snow-belt” communities. Today successful SnowSchool sites are located within nature centers, Nordic centers, national parks, ski resorts, schools and school districts that engage K-12 students from urban and rural areas each winter. Through persistence, Winter Wildlands Alliance has grown SnowSchool into a national network of 65 sites that have collectively engaged more than 360,000 participants in this experience since the program’s inception in 2001. And participation is snowballing: In 2017 SnowSchool engaged 32,000 participants (50% from underserved populations/first-time snowshoers) and we added 8 news sites (our most ever in a season). Despite this growth, the opportunity to bring the SnowSchool experience to kids and communities who really need it remains immense.

    Another historical milestone in the development of SnowSchool was the realization that the program is uniquely situated to help K-12 students explore connections between mountain snow, climate research and water science. These topics are particularly relevant in western states and communities where mountain snow provides approximately 80 percent of the water supply. After spending a week in 2013 in the field with NASA’s International Snow Working Group, we designed a curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students based on state-of-art snow hydrology field-techniques. We tested out this new approach first at our National Flagship SnowSchool near in Boise ID. The result transformed K-12 students into passionate student scientists and snowshoe explorers, and we’ve been working to spread this innovative science curriculum nation-wide ever since.

    However, one potential problem with a school field trip program like SnowSchool is that while the outdoor experience inherently generates enthusiasm, all too often 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 exploration and learning. To solve this problem WWA forged new collaborations with the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in 2015 and with the National Resource Conservation Service’s Snow Survey Program in 2016. Utilizing a network of remote weather stations and SNOTEL stations (which monitor mountain snow across the West) WWA created a new web-based science activity to follow-up the SnowSchool field trip. This “Snowpack Prediction Contest” enables kids across the country to analyze decades of snowpack data in their own local watershed, make predictions based on data from their field trip and track their local mountain snowpack in real-time. The result is a winter-long science project that concludes with a rich “big-picture” discussion of the role of mountain snow, changing snowpack trends and potential impacts of climate change. Quantitative outcome data collected by WWA and presented in a paper at the 2016 North American Association for Environmental Education Conference shows that underserved students who participated in this project continued to make significant gains is science learning even months after their SnowSchool field trip. After an initial trial winter, fifty-five classrooms of students nationally participated in this project in its first year (2017) and WWA aims expand participation ten-fold in future seasons.

    By combining our innovative snow science curriculum with exciting outdoor exploration, SnowSchool is creating for kids both an emotional connection to winter wildlands and greater understanding of the important ecological role of mountain snow. With support from current and new community partners, we aim to eclipse past SnowSchool successes with an expanded program and deeper learning experience that inspires an appreciation for science and evokes a sense of wonder for thousands of kids across the country.

    Kerry McClay, Ed.D., serves as National SnowSchool Director with Winter Wildlands Alliance and is based in Boise ID. Kerry can be reached at To learn more about SnowSchool visit


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