This past week 7th-grade students from the Oakland School of Language, a dual language Spanish English public middle school in Oakland, California, came to the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit for a snow science program with Headwaters. This was the first time many of the students had seen snow before and presented a very special opportunity for them to study the source of much of California’s water. One of the unique aspects of this program for Headwaters was that many of the students did not speak English. While some of our instructors could teach in both Spanish and English other instructors communicated to students using teachers as translators. 

Students investigate Donner Summit

One of the most powerful moments of this 3-day overnight program came out of students and Headwaters instructors dealing with this language barrier. This was centered around two students, who were creating a project around density and snow water equivalent in the snowpack. While waiting for their teacher to translate between them and their Headwaters instructor they started using Google translate on their computer. The group was then able to communicate directly with their Headwaters instructor and continue analyzing their data and creating their research presentation.

This system of text-based google translation worked quite well allowing their teacher to step back and spend more time with other groups. At the end of the program, these students walked up to their teacher and told him “See look what we did [refering to their presentation] and we did it all without you with an instructor didn’t even speak Spanish.” The teacher later described this event to Headwaters staff as “the best snubbing he has ever received.”

A group of three students conducting research on snow

Through their Headwaters program, these students not only completed a rigorous independent research project, but they also proved to their teacher and themselves that they could successfully complete complex tasks with someone who can only speak English. The pride they took in this accomplishment shows in their declaration of independence from their translator. Language barriers are massive and daunting hurdles, but these students were engaged in their research projects and met to this challenge with determination and a problem-solving mindset. While Headwaters programs typically don’t set out to help students break down language barriers, the critical thinking and self-motivation demonstrated here are exactly what we aim to pass on to every student we work with. 

One student is buried waist deep in snow as part of his snow temperature research

This program would not have been made possible without support from many members of the Oakland community, the Sierra Club, and Tahoe Donner XC. Thank you all for making this great educational experience possible.

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