For Waynflete School science teacher Stephanie Dolan, leading a winter field trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire started in Alaska.
Last year, Dolan attended the National Science Foundation-funded Polar STEM Education Conference in Alaska about getting students involved with science. There, she met presenters from Battelle, including Forest Banks, a capture manager who told her about Battelle’s Regional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) grants.
Though the teacher of 20 years had never written a grant proposal, she had an idea about teaching her students about winter STEM science by doing a real field trip in the mountains. Because she had led outdoor trips for kids in the past, she decided to try. “I thought, ‘Geez, I’ll give it whirl.’”
She wrote the proposal and got a $15,000 grant from Battelle. “It was easier than I thought it was going to be,” she said.
Her program was designed to provide students (with an emphasis on those underrepresented) to join a group of dedicated snow enthusiasts and scientists on a winter trip so they could experience science in action while also teaching them about how to work in the outdoors in winter.
Dolan had 55 applicants for the program and chose 14 girls aged 13-15. Starting in January, the group met as an after school/extracurricular program for eight weeks as well as four sessions dedicated to safe winter travel practices (including Leave No Trace principles) and four sessions of current snow science research and techniques (including virtual sessions with scientists from the Alaska’s Toolik Field Station).
They also talked with a group of scientists in Greenland and helped them by looking at satellite images and mapping water. And they collaborated with the Mountain Observation Program and worked with them on reading snow depths and temperatures. “So the girls had already been learning about the science,” Dolan said.
The culminating experience was a four-day winter backcountry trip to learn about snow science (winter safety, avalanche safety and snowpack) in the White Mountains. This past March, Dolan and two other female teachers at Waynflete were joined by a guide from International Mountain Equipment’s climbing group for the first of what Dolan hopes to be many. “It was overwhelmingly positive,” Dolan said.
Dolan said because of their age, most of the young women had never been away from home on this type of trip, likely due to the past three years of COVID. But because all the adult leaders were women, the parents were comfortable. But this program was designed to be a winter challenge, and what a winter they got. “It was unbelievable,” Dolan said. “We got hit with a blizzard before we went so we had three feet of fresh snow, then we got another foot while we were there. It couldn’t have been better.”
The group left home in Portland Maine and drove to New Hampshire, where they embarked on a seven-mile hike with snowshoes and backpacks to a backcountry cabin heated by a potbellied stove. “It was quite an undertaking, but the kids understood how much they’d accomplished,” Dolan said. “We didn’t have any complaints. Because we only took 14, they felt like it was a privilege.”
Along the way and during their stay, the students took measurements of snow and examined the quality of the snow. “The kids were so hungry for this kind of experience,” said Dolan. “They learned that with this kind of science, three quarters of the battle is just getting out there. And they learned a lot about themselves.”
Dolan said her students are inundated with news about world weather events and are overwhelmed with the feeling they can’t do anything about it. “This trip made them recognize they did something a real scientist is going to actually use. They learned science isn’t a one-and-done thing. You’re putting a little blip on a bigger graph. We need you out there putting the next dot on the map.”
Now that the first trip is complete, Dolan wants to do it again. The grant made the trip free for the students, and Dolan learned much about logistical improvements she’ll make in the future. “I’d love for it to develop into a program that kids can do two or three years and each year get a little more into the science and by the third year, they’re leading the younger kids.”