Bringing students into the mountains

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My life is focused in the mountains, so it is surprising how many local young people have never had the opportunity to visit our neighborhood peaks.

“So many kids in Whatcom County see Mt. Baker from the lowlands, but some never get the chance to experience the mountain environment,” says Gwyn Howat, Mt. Baker Ski Area’s executive vice president. “We wanted to facilitate the opportunity to do so.”

This is exactly why, four years ago, Mt. Baker Ski Area and Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) began offering Mt. Baker SnowSchool to local middle and high school students.

In 2015, Mt. Baker Ski Area partnered with the North Cascades Institute (NCI) to expand the audience and broaden the relevancy of the curriculum. Today, Mt. Baker SnowSchool asks students and teachers to consider the greater influence of the snowpack on our everyday lives—from recreation to drinking water, agriculture to fisheries, mountains to bay.

A national program established by Winter Wildlands Alliance, SnowSchool takes place in more than 60 locations in the Western United States. Curriculum is adapted to the needs and interests of participating schools while introducing young people to snowshoeing and field science.

A quarter of the way through the season, we have served 150 local students, the majority have of whom had never visited the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, or taken part in winter recreation at Mt. Baker Ski Area. This season has not only brought an increase in participants, but also in community collaboration. The impact of SnowSchool reaches further than the classroom for both instructors and students.

When Jeff Hambelton, NWAC ambassador and professional observer, invites students into a freshly dug snow profile pit and guides them through a hand hardness test, he is not only demonstrating skills needed to produce avalanche forecasts, but he is also introducing how we might predict summertime Nooksack River flows.

When undergrads from Robin Kodner’s biology lab at Western Washington University model how to properly collect samples for snow algae and bacteria research, they are not only illustrating how microbial communities impact our watersheds, but also that science takes place outside institutional walls.

When volunteer instructors ask students to describe the cloud cover or observe shapes of snow crystals, they are not only teaching about weather and snow morphology, but also about how to pay attention to the natural world.

When teachers help load students onto a bus as far away as Bow or as close as Deming, they are not only displaying a willingness to provide new opportunities, but they are also exemplifying the idea that learning takes place everywhere, at every age, in every community. 

We hope that by bringing students into the mountains their lives will be uplifted, perhaps slowly, perhaps all at once, by an eruption of inner curiosity.

Abby Sussman is the SnowSchool coordinator and is employed by NCI. For more details about SnowSchool, go to http://www.mtbaker.us

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