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School Stories

Grade 3: Avalanche Scientists

Colorado is known for its stunning natural beauty and abundant outdoor recreation, particularly its winter sports scene. Unfortunately, it is also recognized as the country’s leader in avalanche deaths, a grim reminder that snow safety should be a top concern as we approach ski season. Science teacher, Michelle Benge, hopes to bring more attention to this topic -- and the science behind avalanche risk -- with a unit on natural disasters she teaches to third graders.
The lesson started with details about the structure of the earth, its layers and tectonic plates. Next, students learned what is a natural disaster, what causes them, how they impact people, and what we can do to stay safe from them. Students looked at tornadoes, volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires and avalanches and interviewed people who survived natural disasters to gain empathy for the human experience. 
 
Next, they took a closer look at avalanches in particular. A guest speaker from The Glide Project, Chris Anthony, visited students to provide snow science and avalanche education with an emphasis on developing personal responsibility, teamwork, and respect for the mountain environment. Mr. Anthony is a pro skier who was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
 
Using lessons learned while extreme skiing in Cordova, Alaska, for a Warren Miller film, Mr. Anthony talked about stable and unstable snow conditions, how avalanches are triggered, and how your decisions affect you and everyone around you. Part of his experience filming one of the scenes included watching a fellow athlete accidentally trigger an avalanche. “She didn’t panic and she was able to ski to a safe place instead of getting buried under 30 feet of snow,” Mr. Anthony said. 
 
He also described how he tried to speak up about the avalanche danger but was intimidated by others on the team. “Teamwork is about listening and having respect for each other,” he shared. “Everyone has something valuable to contribute.”
 
To wrap up the natural disasters unit, third graders followed the engineering design process to develop an effective protection system that can save lives in the event of an avalanche. Working in small groups, they assembled material like cheesecloth, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and straws into barriers and catches that could stop a rolling object in an avalanche simulation. 
 
To test their invention, they placed the catch at the base of a cardboard “mountain” and rolled marbles and clay balls from the top. If the catch wasn’t successful in stopping the ball, they went back to the lab and made improvements to their designs. If their avalanche protection system worked, they tried the next phase of the design: accomplishing the same result with fewer materials. To be successful in the design challenge, students had to understand how an avalanche occurs, such as when a weak layer of snow is covered by a heavy layer. Another important factor is the slope of the terrain; an angle of 30-45 degrees is common.

Teacher Michelle Benge enjoys teaching this lesson because it helps students to understand avalanches in a hands-on way. “Students are able to make a connection between science and real-world events that happen right here in Colorado,” she said.
 
 
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.