The Story of Winter
A teacher in the snow

Teacher Susan Saly from Jefferson Community School in Minneapolis, Minn., digs a snow pit at the Winter's Story workshop. Image Credit: NASA

Autumn Nguyen's students -- some of whom have never seen real snow -- are learning more about snow and winter after their science teacher spent a week in cold, snowy Yellowstone National Park. Nguyen took part in a NASA Explorer School workshop about climate and weather.

Nguyen's participation in the Winter's Story workshop inspired her to take her Earth science curriculum to the next level. The California teacher is adding lessons about extremophiles and incorporating more hands-on activities about weather, climate and geology.

"The wonderful thing about Winter's Story is that it provided me with a plethora of activities on topics I currently teach," Nguyen said. "It inspired me to take my students outdoors and give them the opportunity to explore the region around them."

The annual workshop invites educators participating in the NASA Explorer School project to learn about the relationship between weather, climate and life on Earth by conducting field research. The workshop focuses on the connection between climate and the requirements for life, and the impact of climate changes on ecosystems. Teachers take the knowledge and tools they acquire back to their classrooms and conduct Earth science observation activities with their students.

A snowy landscape and steam in the air

The mix of snow and steam in the Norris Basin in Yellowstone National Park shows the contrast of winter and the hydrothermal features. Image Credit: NASA

Nguyen said the Winter's Story workshop was one of the best NASA Explorer Schools workshops she has attended since her school, Edward Harris Jr. Middle School in Elk Grove, Calif., joined the project in 2007. (The NASA Explorer Schools project offers professional development opportunities to teachers at participating schools.) "Having very little experience with the snow, I really enjoyed digging snow pits and collecting and examining our snow samples," Nguyen said. "It is one thing to look at pictures and discuss the geological features but totally different to encounter the reality."

The snow pit activity required participants to dig a deep hole in the snow and study the visible layers of the compacted snow. A snow pit's flat, vertical wall exposes the snow pack layers from the snow surface to the ground. Through the snow pit activity, educators learn how NASA scientists interpret climate changes by examining the layers of ice that have accumulated over thousands of years.

A few hours away in San Diego, Winter's Story participant Sarah Trueblood is using workshop activities about the water cycle and states of matter with elementary students at Johnson Magnet School for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Students pretend to become a water molecule traveling to various places on Earth. "As they travel from the geosphere to the atmosphere and biosphere, they change states of matter," Trueblood explained. "Every student experiences a different path of the water cycle. Teaching the water cycle in this way provides the students with a concrete understanding of how water changes states, and scaffolds vocabulary."

Two bison walking on a snow-covered path

Workshop participants saw several of the hundreds of bison that live in Yellowstone National Park. Image Credit: NASA

Trueblood is conducting more hands-on field science with students and incorporating lessons on humidity, wind, and temperature in her units on climate and weather. "The experience at Winter’s Story offered me new ways to integrate real science and inquiry into my curriculum," Trueblood said. "Although we do not have snow in San Diego, this experience will be valuable to my students in that I now understand the many factors that go into weather. ... One of the goals I have set for myself is to set up a weather station at our school and post this information on our school Web site by the end of this school year."

Wisconsin teacher Barb Hendrick knows her way around snow, yet she said experiencing winter in Yellowstone National Park was inspirational, both for teaching and in her daily life. "It is humbling, awesome and awakening to be at this park," Hendrick said. "I am a better steward of the environment since attending this workshop and am in a position to instill this perspective to all the young people I teach."

Hendrick immediately used activities from the workshop with her third-graders at Solon Springs Elementary, in rural northwest Wisconsin. "My class studied snow crystals, dug snow pits and learned about weather and the water cycle. We used information from Yellowstone as a springboard for our environmental studies. We also added to our recent study of geology focusing on volcanoes and geysers."

On a personal level, Hendrick said she was impressed with how much scientists are learning about life in extreme conditions by studying the extreme environments on Earth. "We are finding life in both deep freezing glaciers and in thermal pools above boiling. It makes you reconsider many other conceptions we hold and just how much we don't know. Then we can move on to opening our thinking to many possibilities. Third-graders are good at this because they aren't boxed in by too many 'facts' or dampened curiosity."

The NASA Explorer Schools project supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Related Resources
NASA Explorer Schools   →
Student Observation Network's Winter's Story
Telling Winter's Story
Winter's Story Slideshow

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services