Hands-On Nature: Snow what?

Hands-On-NatureBy Caitlin J. Waddick

To snow or not to snow…

Last week, we had some seriously cold days, such as -11°F with a wind chill of -33°F and blowing snow. At temperatures between -39°F and 32°F, a snowflake begins its life in the clouds as supercool water droplets collect around very small “snow seeds”, which are usually dirt, pollen, salt, or air pollutants (such as microscopic particles from diesel trucks, coal-burning power plants, and cow manure). The snowflake grows heavier and, as it falls from the sky, its size, shape, and design change with the temperature and humidity in the air.

There is another type of snow crystal, which bounces as it hits the ground, called graupel, a funky mixture of fallen snow with supercool – but not yet frozen – water droplets. Think of graupel as a snowflake that is shaped like a tiny piece of popcorn. It is lightweight and full of air, unlike hail which, though lumpy, is hard and solid ice.

Studying snow at Shelburne Community School
In January, pre-K through 3rd graders at Shelburne Community School (SCS) are studying snowflakes through the Hands-On Nature (HON) Program. As in all the HON lessons this year, a puppet show animates concepts of emerging patterns. In this month’s show, “Dust” talks to “Needle” about becoming a snow crystal.

The children may compare different weather conditions through skits to act out weather processes, and they will sort beautiful pictures of snow crystals into classified groups based on their shapes: needles; plain and capped columns; plate, stellar, and dendritic crystals; and irregular crystals. All but the last are hexagonal in shape. Students are also making model snowflakes.

If we are lucky, HON volunteers will take students outside to catch and observe the intricate designs of real snowflakes. In the class I teach, third graders will record their observations about snowflakes and how they form in their journals.

This year, our theme of Patterns In Nature leads us to practice recognizing, sorting, and classifying the similarities and differences among living and non-living things. In Sept. 2013, we studied all sorts of insects, noting their common traits and how they look and behave differently from each other and from spiders, centipedes, and other “bugs.”

In fall,we also studied the diversity of leaves, as well as conifer cones, needles, and. Older kids and adults may enjoy Youtube videos by Vihart, such as “Doodling in Math: Spirals, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant.” In Part 1, the host uses glitter glue to illustrate spiral patterns in the seed scales of cones.

Upcoming HON lessons explore patterns in animal tracks, bird nests, animal disguises, and frogs and toads. The SCS-PTO supports one-third of the cost of the HON program, which is offered through the Four Winds Institute. Most of the funding is garnered from the General Mills program, “Box Tops for Education.” If you buy one of their products, please tear off the box top coupon. Bring your box tops to the collection boxes at Shelburne Supermarket and the SCS front office. Support the program directly by marking your PTO donation for HON.

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