Taking the classroom outside: CBCS kids learn about snow science

Out in the field with RMBL

By Kendra Walker

Some students go on class field trips to museums. Others go to the state capitol building or a planetarium. Here in Crested Butte, students get the one-of-a-kind experience to Nordic ski on conserved lands right in their backyard, play in the snow and interact with real-life scientists. 

Earlier this month, Crested Butte Community School (CBCS) fifth graders participated in a winter science field trip with the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in partnership with the Crested Butte Land Trust and Crested Butte Nordic Center. The students spent the day skiing on Nordic trails, learning about current RMBL research initiatives and investigating how snow impacts local ecosystems, regional watersheds and the community.

RMBL organized the winter field science learning experience. “It’s RMBL’s mission to get local youth out in our watershed and doing science outside. It’s so important to get kids out in their environment to learn,” says RMBL youth programs coordinator Katie Lawn. “We’re always looking for ways to work with the community to help kids get out and experience our public lands, and these field trips were such a wonderful collaboration between RMBL, the Land Trust and the Nordic Center.”

Lawn shares that RMBL has provided this program in years past; however, this was the first year bringing the field trip back since before COVID. The program was also made possible from grant funding from MetRec, as RMBL recently received $20,000 from MetRec to provide more youth programming opportunities in the North Valley. 

Lawn also stresses the importance of teaching the kids topics directly related to what they are learning in the classroom. “We’re really focused on the practices of real science and correlating that with the Colorado Science Standards that the teachers are using in the classroom,” she says. “There is a large sense of collaboration with teachers to reiterate what they’re teaching in real time. We’re helping enhance what they’re already doing with the students.”

Fifth grade teacher Camille Polster agrees. “We were just finishing a unit on ecosystems and the importance of water and the carbon cycle. All these great concepts I’d been teaching in the classroom were then brought to life outside in the field with real scientists.” 

“I love getting my kids active and it made it that much more engaging for the students,” says Polster.

Crested Butte Nordic provided rental equipment, trail passes and the use of the Magic Meadows Yurt for the day. “The Nordic Center was wonderful and helped coordinate the gear for the kids, sizing the students ahead of time and helping everyone get ready with their ski gear,” says Lawn. “The bus driver, Chris, was also amazing.”

The students were bussed out Peanut Lake Road to the Gronk, where they strapped on their skis and began their adventure out to the Magic Meadows Yurt. This was also an opportunity to teach the students about the Crested Butte Land Trust, how the Nordic trail system sits on Land Trust land and the significance of the conserved lands and trails out along the Slate River Valley. 

“RMBL invited me along for the day to introduce the land and space the students would be recreating and learning on,” says Crested Butte Land Trust development manager Jess Forbes. “We’re always excited and proud to provide these public conserved spaces for the whole community, and partner with organizations like RMBL to get kids outside and learning about these precious spaces. A lot of kids had familiarity and knew we were on Land Trust land and why it is so important to be connected to the land and spaces we recreate on.”

Once the students arrived at the yurt, they rotated through various outdoor learning stations focused on snow science and ecology. “Each station helped the kids experience how snow impacts our ecosystem and how it can determine a lot of what happens with our ecosystem for the rest of the year,” says Lawn. 

Students dug snow pits, took snow water equivalent measurements and compared their measurements to past years of data from billy barr, RMBL researchers and NASA scientists. “They got to repeat that process of how any snow scientist would measure the snowpack,” says Lawn. 

The students also explored how surface temperatures affect the snowmelt and investigated the temperatures of different objects with infrared thermometers. “We discussed the patterns and impacts of solar radiation on the environment, and how temperatures affect our snowpack and growing season,” says Lawn. “We pulled data from (landscape ecologist and Research Scientist) Dr. Ian Breckheimer’s Snow Forecast map and looked at how he determines when the snow is going to melt around different locations in our valley.”

Additionally, the students learned about the relationship between weather, climate and forest health. They compared local tree ring samples to billy barr’s local weather data to identify patterns between snow, temperature and tree growth, reiterating how much snow impacts the growing cycle of plants and trees. 

Lawn says the students shared so many highlights from the day, from skiing the trails and making observations to conducting the experiments and using the practices of real scientists. 

“It was really rewarding to hear them make those connections to how important our winter is for the rest of the year,” says Lawn. “They also understood how important these conserved lands are beyond just mountain biking in the summer with their families,” says Lawn. “They made those connections pretty quickly, how much faster the snow would melt and how different our valley would look if the land wasn’t protected and how that would impact our ecosystem.”

“It was such a fun day for the students, they were out there digging and measuring and making connections. That’s what science is all about,” says Polster.  “And it was so timely because many of the concepts overlapped with what we had talked about in the classroom. Suddenly, the kids were hearing it from someone else and connecting it to the real world and they could build upon their knowledge. After a day out at the yurt, every kid came back to school having learned something from the experience.”

Lawn is grateful for the community collaboration that helped provide the students with such a unique learning experience. “Here we are, Nordic skiing on Land Trust land that the Nordic Center maintains and we’re incorporating RMBL science education. What an incredible learning experience for these kids to be on skis on public land adjacent to their town, learning about conserved land and digging in the snow and learning about the water and how everything interacts,” she says. “That is pretty special for them to get to know this place in a deeper sense and understand the unique part of our culture living here and how they can help preserve their culture.”

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