Exploring Snow

Erin Pettit
Univ of Alaska Fairbanks
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This activity is intended to get students engaged and thinking about the role that snow plays in our climate system. It is a hands-on inquiry-based activity that students with no background knowledge can do. The students dig shallow snow pits on campus make observations of texture and color, sketch any layered or other patterned structure, measure the density, and view and sketch crystals in a microscope.

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This activity is intended for the first day of a semester long course called Ice in the Climate System. This is a 3rd year undergraduate course required for geophysics students, but the activity would work for any upper level undergraduate science major (or lower level undergraduate with slight modifications).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

As an introductory activity, they do not need any skills or concepts before the activity, just an initial curiosity.

How the activity is situated in the course

It is intended for the first day of the lab class (3 hours maximum), but could be used at the beginning of a short unit on snow or climate also.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

snow crystal growth in atmosphere, Snow pack structure, snow metamorphism (equilibrium and temperature gradient), snow albedo and the snow albedo feedback, techniques for making field observations

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

recognizing the difference between observations and inference, framing a scientific question, formulating a hypothesis, designing a method for measuring density.

Other skills goals for this activity

This activity is completed in teams; therefore working in groups is a skill goal. At the end of the activity, each team will spend 5 minutes discussing their results for the class; therefore, synthesizing results toward making an oral presentation is a key skill.

Description of the activity/assignment

The students will come into this activity with no or very little knowledge of snow. They will divide into groups, each group receiving the first list of questions (on Rite-in-Rain paper). The questions help guide them through their inquiry and are divided into groups: A) initial observations, B) measurement and detailed observations, and C) inferences and hypotheses. They dig a snow pit to the ground (typically < 2ft).

Part A, they study the layered structure, the texture of different layers, the color (presence of sediment?), initially using basic sketching. Then they decide what aspects are worth measuring in further detail (such as thickness of layers, hardness of layer, density of layers, size of crystals) and come up with a plan.

Part B, they are allowed to begin making their measurements and they are given guiding questions, such as what are the errors in these measurements? How many measurements is sufficient to describe the characteristic you are describing?

Part C is primarily brainstorming ideas and hypotheses among their group, and they can return inside if they choose. They are asked consider the role that snow plays on the landscape. How does the snow affect the ground underneath it? Would that role be different at the coldest part of winter than during the spring melt? Does snow affect the air above it? How might snow play a role in the large climate system?

Oral Synthesis: after completing Part C, each group is given a different overarching question, they must use what they have learned and their ideas to give a 4-5 minute oral synthesis to the class.

This activity is meant to give them new insights into a common geologic material and to recognize the linkages between the atmosphere above the ground and the geology and ecosystem below.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The activity involves the students answering 3 series of questions, some of which have more explicit answers than others, which are more open ended. The open ended question are explicit in that they identify the number/type of ideas they should right down. The final task is to synthesize what they learned into a 4-5 minute oral synthesis (given guidelines for the synthesis).

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