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Mountain Expedition

Regional High School Students Take on Snow Science With Local Experts

Article and photos by Megan Snodgrass, University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene

Bundled up and buckled in, several dozen Lake City High School (LCHS) juniors set off on snowshoes into the wilderness at the Idaho-Montana border in the name of science as well as adventure, curiosity and a well-rounded education informed by local experts.  

The group of about 50 students spent the day traipsing around Lookout Pass, collecting snow science data to inform their research through the Confluence Project, an educational outreach program from the University of Idaho’s Community Water Resource Center and Extension Water Outreach

In the Confluence Project, North Idaho students explore real-world water research with local experts, exposing them to the challenges and privileges of field work and enabling them to contribute to and understand research that’s vital to the region.

Going on field trips like these where we get to learn the science and the history and we get to learn the story about it, like how it connects to our lives — it’s mind opening. Jasmine Coronel, The Confluence Project student participant

LCHS junior Christopher Romo said the experience on the snow field was an enlightening one.

“Today was really cool and really fun. I felt like a scientist,” Romo said. “It was fun getting out in the snow, but it was hard. It got chilly. Being out and getting to be hands-on, I feel like you actually learn more than when you’re stuck in a classroom.”

Bigger Picture

In the snow science field trip, students dug snow pits and collected data on snowpack, including depth, density, layers, snow water equivalency and weather conditions. Not only do the students get the experience of performing science in the field, but they also get to contribute to regional history.

Jamie Esler, a LCHS environmental science teacher whose classes have participated in the Confluence Project since its inception in 2013, said their work during the snow science field trips connects students with the past and the future. Data collected during the field trip is compared to a database that goes back nearly 75 years.

“They’ll make a graph of snow water equivalent in February from 1950 to 2024,” Esler said. “We tie that into our studies on climate change and atmospheric circulation. The data collection that they do today will sit between past snow science data taken here and what climate scientists project for the rest of the 21st century, which they’ll come into adulthood in. This really helps show the bigger picture and gives them a personal connection to it.”

Two students look on as a third student writes in a notebook.
Lake City High School students Sydney Moyle and Emerson Larue wait while their teammate Jasmine Coronel records weather data for their Confluence Project research.

LCHS student Jasmine Coronel said participating in the Confluence Project takes a relatable educational approach to regional topics.

“What they ideally want us to know is how the environment comes into effect in our lives,” Coronel said. “Going on field trips like these where we get to learn the science and the history and we get to learn the story about it, like how it connects to our lives — it’s mind opening.”

Expert Advice

The Confluence Project includes a special opportunity for regional students. In both the snow science field trips and the aquatic life field trips to the Spokane River in the fall, students get to work directly with volunteers who are working scientists and experts in their fields. Working scientists also volunteer to serve as judges for the Confluence Project’s cumulative research symposium called the Youth Water Summit.

Volunteers come from a variety of regional organizations, including U of I’s Idaho Water Resources Research Institute, Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Forest Service, as well as non-governmental environmental organizations like Trout Unlimited and governments like the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Seth Oliver, a hydrogeologist with Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, volunteered on the February field trip to Lookout. He said although learning about snowpack and watershed supply is an important part of the program, a big benefit to the lesson is connecting the science to the working world.

Man indicates with his arms while two students look on in snow field.
Lake City High School teacher Jamie Esler, left, shows students Charlee Bridges and Rylee Bunger the ideal width of a snow pit with his arms.

“I never had the exposure as a high school student to folks who are in the field,” Seth said. “All of the volunteers are professionals in the outdoor industry. We have volunteers from across the whole gamete of outdoor professionals that are out there doing science and taking measurements. I think that’s one of the more important things they take from today, is seeing you can make a living doing science outside.”

And students appreciate the opportunity. Leorla Belnap was one of several LCHS students on the snow science field trip who said she would recommend the program to a younger student.

“Think about it — going on field trips as a high schooler? Nobody gets to do that anymore,” Belnap said.

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