Water in Winter with ACES Ed

ACES Staff

January 22, 2015

Water in Winter with ACES Ed

The winter is in full swing at ACES and it is definitely an exciting time to be an Educator here, both in the classroom and on field programs. ACES Ed takes us beyond the confines of the classroom, and winter provides an excellent opportunity for students throughout the Roaring Fork Valley to develop a stronger connection to a very valuable resource: WATER! 

When riding up the chairlift, or just talking about ACES with my friends and family, I’m often asked what I’ve been teaching about lately. Instead of a lengthy dissertation about what each class is studying, I usually just reply with “Water – at least 71% of the time!” This answer is typically followed by strange looks or moments of silence. 

I typically assume that my audience simply missed my intended pun (71 percent of Earth’s surface is covered in some form of water). However, I’ve discovered that people are actually confused as to why I would be teaching about water in the middle of winter in the Rocky Mountains! Please allow me to explain in case some of you readers may also be asking, “Why water?” 

ACES Ed programming enables students within the Roaring Fork Valley to make a solid connection (snow-pun intended) with water through several units, in every grade levels, during the winter months.  

It was rumored recently that a flock of ptarmigans and a herd of snowshoe hares (commonly referred to as a “fluffle” in Northern Canada) were running amuck at Basalt and Crystal River Elementary Schools. These ptarmigans (as seen in the picture above) and snowshoe hares were actually kindergarteners on a quest to learn about how animals will change colors in the winter in order to survive! For ptarmigans and snowshoe hares, water is not only important for drinking, but in it’s solid form of snow, it also provides a camouflaged disguise for these easy prey targets.


Learning about how animals use snow to survive throughout the harsh winter is also on the docket for our first grade students, as they explore their predator/prey unit. Just as you might have done when you were a kid, tiny mammals like mice, moles, voles, and shrews will dig large and elaborate tunnels beneath the snow to protect themselves from the elements and stay hidden from predators such as lynx, bobcat, ermine, and owl. First graders can tell you that these tunnels are located in the subnivean zone, which is the area between the ground and the top of the snowpack that is vital to the survival of many small mammals throughout the winter season. First graders will also be able to tell you that on the occasion that they leave the subnivean zone, some of these small mammals might be quickly whisked away by one of the stealthiest predators in the animal kingdom – the owl. A main focus of the predator/prey unit is aimed at understanding how this incredible predator uses its adaptations to capture unsuspecting prey on cold winter nights.

Second graders in ACES Ed will also be exploring in the snow to learn about winter adaptations. But first, second graders learn a little bit about how water turns into snow with a brief snow science lesson. In the pictures above, students are measuring the snow depth and taking the temperature of the snow. We even looked at different snow crystals underneath a microscope! Furthermore, the students hypothesized just how much of that vital liquid was in the snowpack by collecting 4 inches of compacted snow and observing what happens as it changes form. Students were amazed to see that there was only 1.5” inches of water after it melted! One student even remarked, “Now I know why I don’t get to kayak as much in the summer when we don’t get much snow in the winter.” As an ACES educator, this was a very rewarding connection to observe. 


Rewarding connections like that have also been in abundance in ACES Ed third grade classes at Basalt and Crystal River Elementary Schools, as we moved on from a geology unit about the rock cycle, to learning about the water cycle. In one activity, third graders had the opportunity to test their math skills by figuring out how much of the water on our planet is freshwater available for human consumption. What do you think is the answer? Our third graders were amazed to find out that less than one percent of all water on the planet is available to drink. In addition, many third graders couldn’t believe that this minuscule amount of water was enough to sustain the entire population on planet earth. Students were challenged to think about what this meant to them and their daily lives. Many students offered typical answers: turn off water while brushing your teeth, take shorter showers, etc. However, one Crystal River student mentioned, “Find different water sources for mountains to make snow – not drinking water.” What ways can you think of to help protect the most important 1%?


The acquisition of water has also been an important element to our latest fourth grade unit, which covers ancient life zones and fossils. Students find it fascinating that efforts to secure a local water source for Snowmass Village led our community to discover a rich variety of fossils – one of the most complete fossil records in the world! These fossils provide clues about ancient life zones in the Roaring Fork Valley and the state of Colorado. Fourth graders at Basalt and Crystal River will be continuing this unit looking at marine fossils from a time when much of Colorado was covered by a shallow sea, which prove that a landscape can change drastically over time – especially with a great influence from water (glaciers, seas, and rivers).

A winter filled with water is what everyone in this valley is hoping for, especially skiers searching for that deepest pow, kayakers dreaming about their summer adrenaline rush, and of course ACES Educators seeking to help their students form a deeper connection with the Roaring Fork Valley.  I encourage you to go on a water adventure similar to the students of Basalt and Crystal River Elementary Schools. How are you connected to the water that is vital to life of this valley, the arid west, and, of course, to your own survival?  For me, it always brings a smile to my face to arrive to work at Rock Bottom Ranch and see the rich, vibrant, and protected riparian landscape before me. I encourage you to visit Rock Bottom Ranch at this wonderful time of year, just like the students in the photos below. And while you’re enjoying the snow and sending gifts to Ullr in hopes for more, remember that it all comes back to water! At least 71% of it anyway….

~ Dustin Hall, ACES Educator

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