Snowshoes and science

Mountain becomes classroom on water quantity for Post Falls students

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Zion Klos, a University of Idaho College of Natural Resources student in the environmental science program, demonstrates an exercise using multiple techniques to measure snowpack and its quality for a group of Post Falls High School students on Wednesday during Showshoes and Shovels, part of The Confluence Project that includes the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, held at the Bald Knob shelter on Mount Spokane.

MOUNT SPOKANE STATE PARK, Wash. - For T'ariq Arp, the mile-long trek up the side of a mountain here on Wednesday was well worth the exercise.

The mountain and its snowpack became the classroom for Post Falls High teacher Cindy Rust's Honors Biology class, which is studying snow science from runoff to avalanche danger.

"At least you're not sitting in a classroom learning from a PowerPoint presentation," said Arp, a sophomore, taking a break from collecting data. "A lot of us haven't been snowshoeing. Some students are hands-on, so this field trip helps them understand what's taught in the classroom better."

After the students strapped on snowshoes to hike to the mountaintop, they started with water quantity.

Working in teams and under the guidance of hydrology experts, the students dug large snow pits to collect data about snowpack and moisture levels. They'll return the information to the classroom to compile charts and graphs and design projects that develop solutions to local water resource problems.

"We've been doing a project throughout the year that's related to water and here we're measuring the levels of density," said Rebecca Skarisky, a sophomore. "The amount of snowpack is important for irrigation."

The field trip is one of four the class takes to study water quality, water resources and water quantity. The class also visited Fish Creek near Twin Lakes to learn about water quality and drainage. Mount Spokane's snowpack feeds Fish Creek.

The amount of snowpack and runoff each season have far-reaching effects on everyday life, including hydropower generation, fisheries, farming and recreation.

The field trip was part of the Confluence Project, a partnership of environmental education developed by the University of Idaho's Waters of the West program in conjunction with the Lands Council and experts from government agencies and the private sector.

The project takes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to the next level, exposing students to the applications of science as it relates to the watershed and their community through field-based experiments.

Rust received grants from the Captain Planet Foundation and Target to purchase snow science equipment and to fund the field trip.

"It takes a lot more than one agency to pull something like this off," Rust said.

She said there's more to learning than what's presented in the classroom.

"I just want to inspire the kids," she said.

Lake City High students will conduct similar experiments on Feb. 6 at Lookout Pass, as will students from St. Maries High on Feb. 11. Teachers from all three high schools involved will travel to Chicago in March to present the Confluence Project as an educational model at the National Science Teachers Association conference.

Jim Elkins, a UI Extension water educator, said the amount of snowpack a watershed receives each year affects a myriad of natural resource decisions.

"This is an educational experience that can be very valuable to students," he said. "I try to tell them that there's even jobs related to this field work and collecting data."

Elkins said to never underestimate the power of the hands-on outdoor classroom.

He used a Benjamin Franklin quote to describe the experience: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."

Elkins said there's also self-efficacy associated with such a field trip.

"They climbed a mountain today - that's accomplishing something," he said.

Ty Moulton, a sophomore at Post Falls High, waits a moment for a temperature reading of a section of snowpack.

 

On showshoes, Jayme Cord, left, and classmate Hope Newman approach the area where student performed snowpack experiments.

 

Cierra Foster, left, discusses the density value of a snow sample with Alexis Young.

 

Students work on snowpack testing on a hillside of Mount Spokane.

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