By Lindsay Butcher, Stewardship Director
SnowSchool is the nation’s largest on-snow winter ecology education program, with more than 30,000 annual participants at 60 sites across the United States. Developed by Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA) to introduce underserved K-12 students to snow science and the wonder of winter landscapes, SnowSchool combines hands-on science education with snowshoe-powered outdoor exploration. The kiddos learn what the water cycle is and the part humans play in it, what our local watershed looks like and where we get our water from, where it goes, winter adaptations of animals/humans/plants, water-snow equivalency, and how to dig a snow pit, among many other live-action lessons.
Locally, Friends of the Inyo (FOI) has been co-hosting SnowSchool alongside Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association (ESIA) since 2017. We have expanded the program to include Bishop Elementary and Mammoth Elementary, with plans to continue expansion in 2024 to additional elementary schools in Inyo and Mono Counties. The program is offered to local 5th graders as a half-day excursion into the mountains.
When SnowShool takes place is always dependent on the snowpack and weather of that winter. This season, the Eastern Sierra received a healthy dumping of snow early on, so we were able to get Bishop Elementary out in January. Mammoth Elementary was supposed to take place in early February, but had to be postponed to March due to inclement weather (“Boo!” to the high winds we experienced, but “Yay!” for all the snow).
For Bishop Elementary, we usually head up to Cardinal Village in Aspendell to deliver SnowSchool to the kids. Cardinal Village graciously makes available a warm room for the kiddos to return to for breaks and snacks in between activities, and usually has a healthy layer of fresh snow to play in. For Mammoth Elementary, we head over to the Mammoth Lakes Visitor Center, where we have access to their warm auditorium and ample snowy fields around the groomed Nordic track.
Why is SnowSchool important? We believe that one of the best ways to foster a rooted relationship with the wild spaces of the Eastern Sierra is to get folks interacting with the land. The earlier you get to experience the great outdoors the better! SnowSchool is a classroom without a ceiling: a hands-on learning experience that serves as a bridge to connect kids to snow science, watershed, and winter recreation, according to the WWA website, winterwildlands.org.
Volunteer: This year we relied heavily on volunteers to help docent classes. You don’t need to be a scientist, snow sportsman or woman, or even familiar with winter ecology to be a volunteer. We just need folks who are enthusiastic about learning, can help super-eager and energetic 5th graders put on snowshoes and follow safe snow play instructions.
Donate: Many of the kids have never been in the snow, so we provide whatever gear we can, but welcome donations of gloves, jackets, beanies, and boots help keep the kids warm and safe in a winter environment. Also, SnowSchool is not cheap. We offer the program at no charge to the schools, but generous donations from community members help pay for the overhead that keeps this program afloat year after year.