Snowpack: Building Background Understanding

By the end of this Unit your students will have an introduction to the basics of snow and snowpack.

Unit Overview

Students need a general sense of the snow as a part of a system. Walking through snow on a series of days in winter and the experience will be different each time, and for each walk the experience may not be the same from start to end. For every difference (fresh snow, freezing rain, a thaw, no trees, trees, cloudy, sunny) there is a change in the snow. Understanding shorter-term and longer-term changes in snow will help students think about how changes in the system might result in different patterns of snowpack through the winter.

Some ideas in ecology- movement of energy, habitats, communities- can be abstract, but in this Unit we are asking the students to put those ideas into the context of their local stream. What does a stream do? How does the stream work as a habitat? How do the stream organisms function, and what are their specific habitat requirements?


The Snowpack project is about developing an understanding of a system, testing that understanding through experimentation, and then refining that understanding. Any research project with a hypothesis- a test of the understanding of a system- should grow out of some kind of a model of the system or mechanism under investigation.  A student ought to have some idea, based on their model, about why the outcome predicted by the hypothesis would happen.

We need to employ what students already know and build their background understanding of snowpack and climate to give them the framework for their own models.


  • Students understand the basics of how snow is formed, the characteristics of snowpack, and the climate conditions necessary to have a snow-dominated winter.

Instructional Strategies

In the first two Units of this project we recommend starting each lesson asking students what they know about that Lesson’s topic.

There are many different ways to think about winter and snow. We are most interested in how climate (large, State-wide climate, and microclimate) affects snowpack. It is important to keep students focused on snowpack as much as possible.