Headwater Science Institute’s winter of studying the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada continued last week with the completion of the Tahoe Expedition Academy Snow Science Field Program.
It was two days of fun-filled and informative research, the first day for ninth- and 10th-grade biology students and the second for 11th- and 12th-grade earth science students.
“I never knew what I skied on everyday was so complex,” one student said.
The days were a shortened version of Headwaters’ Research Experience, an immersive, months-long program where students develop a formal research paper, allowing students to see how snow depth and density is measured and what kinds of water-quality metrics can be measured from snow melt.
Like the full Research Experience, these students then completed a mini research project of their own to experience how the scientific process works.
Here are some more quotes from the two field days:
“I loved learning about how snow layers are formed and seeing it in real life.”
“I got to learn about the importance of snow and different factors [that can be measured] in snow. I got to be outside and have a blast.”
“I had a lot of fun and learned about albedo and its impact on rate of snow melt.”
Building a snow cave at the 2022 Bay School Snow Science Camp.
Do roads impact water quality in the snowpack? How does a forest or an open meadow change snowpack depth?
These are just some of the questions students examined at the recently completed Headwaters Science Institute’s Bay School Snow Science Camp in the Sierra Nevada’s Olympic Valley – topped off with a healthy portion of cross country skiing, playing in the snow and even learning how to build an emergency snow shelter.
“I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, from going out into the meadow of snow and taking samples, to cross country skiing,” Bay School camper Coco told Headwaters. “I learned so much over the course of this trip, especially about the chemicals in snow, such as pH and how that affects drinking water and the native biotic species.”
Arie Koshkin, a graduate student studying snow science at University of Nevada Reno, brought her expertise to the camp examining the effects of fire on snow pack. She even brought some cool instruments from her lab for the students to use.
“I really enjoyed being in the snow and learning about its role – from the chemical composition of snow to skiing,” Arie, another camper, said. “I also met a lot of new people and found friends with similar interests in science. This trip was really amazing and I can’t wait to continue exploring science.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
This past week students from the Park Day School’s 7th grade joined Headwaters on Donner Summit for a snow science program themed around snow as a source of water. A majority of California’s drinking water comes from melted snow which also serves as a ecosystem sustaining water source during the hot and dry summer months.
Headwaters staff challenged students to create their own original research projects around something that would affect the water they consume in Oakland. The students worked together in teams to create a creative array of different projects around this theme. Below are some highlights from the group work.
A few groups of students noticed on arrival that the snow near the road was noticeably dirtier than the snow elsewhere around the field site and chose to investigate this further. They collected dozens of snow samples from near the road, in clean snow, and many areas in between. Students melted their snow samples and tested them for total dissolved solids (TDS), the concentration of ions like salts in water, as well as the clarity of the snow melt water to quantify how much dirt and organic matter was in the snow.
This group hypothesized that they would find a linear decrease in TDS and increase in clarity as they moved away from the road. They found that areas within 8 feet of the road were significantly impacted with much higher TDS and much less clear meltwater while areas further than 8 feet showed very little effect from this human disturbance. The group also found evidence that particulates from the road not only affected snowmelt water quality but also made the snow near the road darker and warmer causing it to melt faster. While the roads studied did not have salts applied to them, these students hypothesized that the increase in TDS came from the mechanical breakdown of asphalt and sand by car tires. However, they also found an unexpected result of this increase. In their sample sites downhill of the road, this team found evidence that pollutants from the road were entering nearby waterways.
In their research presentation, these students discussed how the moderate decreases in water quality they observed on Donner Summit could be magnified further downstream in the reservoirs that hold much of the Bay Areas drinking water. Their project also highlights the importance of wetlands, swales, and catchment ponds which filter sediment and clean water.
This project is a great example of what makes Headwaters student programs so special. They start with students’ own observations and challenge them to explore their curiosity more deeply. Lead by their own investigations, students learn about the ecosystems they live in, how they work, and how to protect these important natural resources.
Students from California Middle School found a lot more snow than they were expecting this weekend at the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit. During this science trip, they spent 3 days designing and completing their own original scientific research projects. They came up with a wonderfully creative spread of research questions such as: What are the sound muffling properties of snow? Do we find more invertebrates where there are fewer birds?
In total students collected over 1,000 data points to test their hypotheses. Over the course of the trip students spent over 13 hours of their time dedicated to science alone, which is the equivalent to 2 weeks of science class.
Between all this hard work, students were able to sneak in some group bonding time sledding, building an igloo, and playing games around the lodge. Beyond creating some impressive sled runs and research projects, students also practiced valuable science skills. Between pre- and post-program surveys 100% of students reported overcoming a challenge with their projects and the percentage of students who responded as “Very Confident” in their ability to apply the scientific method increased by 30%.
Student Research Highlights
One of the two groups of students studying invertebrates found that invertebrates were highest near water sources and in tree stumps. In addition to overcoming their fear of spiders, this group concluded that insects were more common near water because of the role water plays in many insects’ reproductive life cycles. They also hypothesized that more invertebrates were found in stumps because most of these insects were decomposers and that the stumps may have offered invertebrates shelter from the cold weather.
Some students used speakers and audio recording equipment to measure how different depths of snow could muffle sound. They found that 50 cm of snow could almost completely muffle the loudest sound a human could make.
Three students surveyed snow depth around the lodge to learn about factors that affect snow depth in the spring. They collected data in areas that had been impacted by humans as well as in undisturbed places. They found that places humans had walked had average snowpack that was of 30% less than nearby undisturbed areas. These students thought that this was because people walking on snow caused to become dirtier, and therefore darker, which led to that area melting faster.
Understanding the mechanics of snow melt in the Sierra is especially for the hydrologists who manage California’s many reservoirs in order to prevent flooding and supply drinking water throughout dry summer months. For more information about the importance of water in the Sierra, check out a previous blog post with information on the water cycle.
Headwaters would like to thank the Sierra Club for partnering with us to offer lodging at the Clair Tappaan Lodge.