Feature

Telling Winter's Story
05.02.07
The cold and snowy weather at the Winter's Story workshop in Yellowstone National Park was not new to Richard Souza, a teacher in southern Maine where January snowfall averages 19 inches. The single-digit temperatures were, however, quite a change for Gladys Munoz, a teacher from Puerto Rico.

A group of teachers standing on a snowy hill
"I previously did not have this experience of winter, because I live in a tropical island where it is summer all year long," Munoz said.

Image to left: Winter's Story participants match colors on paint color strips with colors in the natural environment. Credit: Trena Ferrell

Souza, Munoz and 25 other educators attended the Winter's Story teacher workshop at Yellowstone National Park, Jan. 21-25, 2007. The workshop teaches educators about ice in the solar system and about snow and ice on Earth. It also examines the relationships between organisms, climate and ecosystems as a way to learn about extreme conditions and the extremophiles that thrive in or require extreme conditions.

Attending the workshop were 25 NASA Explorer School teachers and two Dutch teachers. The NASA Explorer Schools project promotes and supports the incorporation of NASA content into the classroom to enhance instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Explorer Schools’ teachers participate in professional development opportunities such as the Winter's Story workshop.

NASA Explorer Schools workshop coordinator Trena Ferrell said the workshop focuses on more than just winter and includes lessons in climate and weather. Teachers learn by doing classroom activities and field exercises. They also take what they learn and design lesson plans to take back to their classrooms.

The main field activity involved digging snow pits and studying the visible layers of the compacted snow. The snow pits' flat, vertical walls exposed the snow pack layers from the snow surface to the ground.

Ferrell said the goal of the snow pit activity was for the educators to learn how NASA scientists interpret climate changes by examining the layers of ice that have accumulated over thousands of years.

Woman lying in the snow making a snow angel
As snow accumulates and changes over time, it develops layers of snow marked by their physical differences, thus reflecting the history of the snow pack. The different layers develop visible characteristics because of compaction and weather changes. Scientists study the layers of the snow pack and compare the layers with past weather events using basic weather data such as air temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction, and cloud types.

Image to right: Juhannie Villafane makes a snow angel in the snow at Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Trena Ferrell

Workshop attendees used the same procedures scientists use to study snow packs. The participants entered their findings into the Student Observation Network Winter's Story online database.

Munoz said she was impressed by the snow pit activity and learned a lot, not only about the science of winter but how to adapt the snow pit activity for her students by using sand. "I was really nervous about being exposed to the cold like that, but was surprised by finding it a fun activity," Munoz said.

Munoz teaches Earth science at Marcelino Canino Canino Middle School, a NASA Explorer School in Dorado, Puerto Rico. She described the Winter's Story workshop as "a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

"I felt this experience really opened my eyes to a whole new way of teaching topics, using my experiences in Yellowstone," Munoz said.

Munoz and fellow Dorado science teacher Juhannie Villafane took back to their classrooms several hands-on lessons to use with their students. These plans include activities about the Earth's water cycle, weather and climate phenomena, and seasonal change. Villafane said they plan to do an exercise from the workshop about how snowflakes are formed "so the students can see maybe the first snowflake in their lives." To better understand the properties of ice and snow and their crystalline structure, workshop participants made crystals in a way similar to how ice and snow form in nature.

"The specific activities done in the workshop have already come in handy in the classroom," said Villafane, who teaches Earth and physical sciences.

Richard Souza returned to his classroom at Biddeford Middle School in Biddeford, Maine, with a "renewed enthusiasm" to share what he’d experienced.

Man using a hygrometer
"The entire Winter's Story experience was amazing," Souza said. "The opportunity to interact with NASA personnel and utilize the incredible resources that they share with teachers was wonderful. ... I came back feeling energized to share what I had learned with my students and colleagues."

Image to left: Richard Souza experiments with a sling psychrometer at the Winter's Story teacher workshop. A sling psychrometer is a type of hygrometer used to measure humidity. Credit: Trena Ferrell

Souza teaches life and environmental science to seventh graders at Biddeford Middle School, selected as a NASA Explorer School in 2003. Souza said he was impressed by the amount of data that is being collected by NASA satellites that he can use with his students.

"I have shared a number of things from Winter's Story with my students and will continue to share more," Souza said. "As a life science teacher, I teach a unit about bacteria, so the opportunity to learn more about the extremophiles (bacteria that live in extreme conditions) and explore and examine the Mammoth Hot Springs was particularly relevant for me.

"We have used the extremophile and Mammoth Hot Springs information in the bacteria unit we are just now completing. Soon, I will be using some of the climate data and resources in a unit on climate change and its effects."

Kareen Borders attended the Winter's Story workshop and found it beneficial both personally and in the potential impact to students and teachers at Key Peninsula Middle School in Lakebay, Wash., where she teaches eighth-grade science and astronomy/aerospace.

Related Resources
+ View Winter's Story Slideshow

+ Student Observation Network

+ Student Observation Network: Winter's Story

+ NASA Explorer Schools

+ NASA Education Web Site

"Although I personally benefited from this workshop in terms of content learning and instructional strategies, the impact will reach many more," Border said. "I think that the field activities were the most important. As educators, we know that it is important to have our students 'do science,' not just learn about science. The snow pit inquiry activity is a great analogy for inquiry in the classroom. It is important for students to generate questions, devise a way to answer those questions, carry out the investigation, analyze their results, and ask more questions."

Through the NASA Explorer Schools project, NASA enters partnerships with selected schools to bring engaging science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning to educators, students and families. A competitive application process and selection of new NES teams occur each spring. With this project, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education. NES is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services