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  • Writer's pictureNick Mitchell

Empowering Tahoe-Truckee Youth Through Snow Science Education: A Look at SWEP's Partnership with Tahoe XC

The Winter Discovery Center in the yurt at Tahoe Cross-Country (Tahoe XC) is a wonderful place to teach. It feels cozy and spacious at the same time. At the height of winter it is half-buried and you have to walk down steps cut in the snow to enter. The perfect place for snow science. 

For the past 15 years SWEP has collaborated with Tahoe XC and supported the Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association (TCCSEA) in reaching its mission of promoting a healthy, outdoor-oriented lifestyle. This winter students from six Tahoe Truckee Unified School District schools came to the yurt to learn about how snow is a science unto itself, why scientists need to monitor it, and why it is so important for the ecology and environment. They also get to have fun skiing on it, and for some students this is their first time cross-country skiing. 

This year, most schools arrived by bus (many thanks to TTUSD for providing the transportation). Students were quickly helped by the wonderful Tahoe XC staff who kitted them out with cross country skis, poles and boots. Within half an hour of arrival there would be 25 or so students zooming around the yurt, burning off some energy before they switched on their science brains and came inside to start the lesson. 

We always start with a review of our remote wildlife cameras, showing the students photos of any animals we might have been lucky to snap a photo of that week. A bobcat was this season’s highlight. Students love seeing  photos of the animals that live in the forest that they are about to go for a ski in. 

Bobcat sighting!

Next we introduce the SWEP snowpack prediction contest in collaboration with Winter Wildlands Alliance. Each class is invited to work together to come up with a prediction of the deepest recorded snow depth and greatest recorded snow water equivalent for the winter. Students learn about why scientists monitor the snowpack, how the snowpack acts as a huge reservoir providing California with fresh water throughout the summer, and what a Snotel site is. The winners of the prediction contest win a pizza party. 

Then it is time for the main part of the lesson. This could be snow science or learning about Tahoe-specific adaptations found in the local fauna and flora. The lessons all include data sheets where students record their observations and findings. The goal is for the lessons to be hands-on and fun.  

Highlights included building thermometers, learning about which materials are best at keeping you warm (please note: cotton is rotten), making and melting snow castles, learning how to identify animal tracks in the snow, and how pine trees are adapted to survive our winters. 

After our lesson, it is time for lunch before going for a cross-country ski with their teachers and parent volunteers. A big thank you to all the parent volunteers! I always challenge the students to think about what they learned in the yurt while they are skiing and see if they can find an opportunity to apply their new knowledge. It could be finding animal tracks and identifying them, or noticing how cold or warm their toes are and checking to see what their socks are made of. 

We want to make sure students can connect what they learned to the world around them, and especially a world filled with the wonder that is snow. As with all SWEP programs, the overall aim is to connect the students to nature in a meaningful way. They will benefit from a connection to nature both physically and mentally, and ultimately, so too will Tahoe. 

We thank Tahoe XC and Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association (TCCSEA) for partnering with SWEP in bringing the Winter Discovery Center to local students. Thank you to the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District (TTUSD) for supporting SWEP programming.


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