The science of snow: Summit Cove fifth-graders learn about snowpack and avalanche safety |

The science of snow: Summit Cove fifth-graders learn about snowpack and avalanche safety

SUMMIT COVE – Fifth-grader Nikki Ledbetter skis and snowboards. She’s never been into the backcountry, but should she choose to one day, Ledbetter will know how to travel carefully and avoid avalanche terrain.

“I will be more careful if I do go into the backcountry,” Ledbetter said, adding that she’ll also bring some tools to help determine snowpack stability and avalanche danger.

Ledbetter and her fifth-grade classmates at Summit Cove Elementary School recently wrapped up an avalanche safety and snow sciences curriculum.

“I thought it was important that the Summit County kids know something about snow,” said fifth-grade teacher Debra Mitchell. “My goal is to educate them about snow safety and avalanche risks so they can make better informed choices in the backcountry.”

Not just for adults

It’s usually adults who enroll in avalanche safety courses, but that doesn’t mean it’s something kids can’t learn.

Nick Logan, associate director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, visited Shannon Drogsvold’s and Mitchell’s fifth-grade classes to teach the students about avalanche safety. He taught the children about mountain weather, snowpack, and avalanche terrain.

“It’s pretty basic stuff,” Logan said, adding that he used some visual aids to help the kids understand what happens in the backcountry, and it was clear they understood.

“They had great questions,” he said. “They really picked up on some key things, such as how steep slopes have to be to avalanche.”

While many of the children might not yet venture into the backcountry in the winter, it’s not too early to learn about the dangers, Logan said.

“I think its really good to start teaching them about avalanches at this age,” he said.

Logan said he hopes the students will use their newly acquired backcountry and avalanche safety knowledge to make the right decisions as they get older – whether that means resisting peer pressure to duck the rope at a ski area or avoiding avalanche terrain in the backcountry.

Snow scientists

Armed with the basics of avalanche safety, the fifth-graders went on a field trip to Keystone Science School last week to learn about snow sciences.

“We like to get the chance to educate local students about the things they experience and see every day in their backyards,” said Andy McIntyre, Keystone Science School programs director. “In this case, it’s a snow science curriculum.”

The students spent three days and two nights immersed in snow sciences. They learned about crystals and snow types. They dug snow pits to examine the snow and its layers. They studied how snow forms in the atmosphere and how snowpack affects the watersheds in Colorado. And they were scientists for three days.

They learned the concepts of snow sciences by using the scientific process out in the field, McIntyre said.

The classes were divided into four groups. Each group came up with a question about snow and a related hypothesis. Then the students went snowshoeing to collect data, which they analyzed before reaching a conclusion.

Jake Hutto, Brian Solomon and their groupmates studied the difference in snowpack between treed areas and clearings. Hutto said he was surprised there was more snow in the treed areas and guessed the sun and wind had contributed to snow loss in the clearings. Both Hutto and Solomon said they learned a lot about snow crystals, layers and what contributes to avalanches.

“I was pretty surprised that an avalanche could happen at 30 to 45 degrees -I thought it would have to be a lot steeper,” Solomon said.

“I thought it was really fun,” Hutto said. “I’ll be a lot more careful when I’m in places with avalanche danger and stuff.”

Ledbetter sometimes finds science “weird and hard to understand” but the field trip was “pretty fun and they made it in simplistic form … it made me a lot smarter about snow, avalanches, stuff like that,” she said.

Mitchell said she hoped the curriculum would teach the students to become aware of avalanche zones and to stay away from those areas.

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