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There’s no school like SnowSchool

Kerry McClay
Kerry McClay, director of the SnowSchool Program for Winter Wildlands Alliance, John Kelly photo

When Kerry McClay arrived in Boise from the Midwest to attend high school, he was immediately taken with the mountains surrounding the city.

“It was a big moment in my life and it made a big impression on me to encounter all these wild spaces,” he said.

The experience McClay had as a teenager backpacking in the Sawtooths and other mountain ranges led him to pursue a career in outdoor education. McClay left Idaho after high school and worked for outdoor education programs around the country. One program, in the coastal Santa Cruz mountains, inspired him to create something similar for students in Idaho.

“The program in California provided such a great opportunity for kids to go out into the woods and spend a week learning about forest ecology,” he said. “I didn’t have those programs growing up here, and yet we have all this incredible public land and these wild places. It seemed we should have programs to make sure all kids get the opportunity to experience these places, so I made it my goal to move back and get something going here in Idaho.”

In 2007, McClay began working for the Winter Wildlands Alliance, a nonprofit organization that represents backcountry skiers and human-powered recreation on public lands, to set up a flagship site of the national SnowSchool program at the Bogus Basin Nordic Lodge.
SnowSchool connects kids to snow science and winter recreation. Students learn about hydrology, winter ecology, wildlife, and snow crystals to help make the connection between the snowpack – the largest reservoir in the West – and the water they drink.

McClay enrolled in Boise State’s doctoral program in curriculum and instruction when he realized he needed more tools to expand the program and create lessons for school groups.

Students on a snow hike
Idaho City 5th graders participate in a SnowSchool hike, John Kelly photo.

Through his studies at Boise State, McClay was able to work through one of the main questions facing outdoor educators: How do outdoor programs fit into a traditional academic experience?

“I think everyone generally agrees that kids benefit from time outdoors and time spent with hands-on learning experiences, but how do you make it fit within the system? That’s where one of my instructors, Keith Thiede, really challenged me to come up with a way of quantifying what students were learning and to develop activities that directly tie to learning outcomes,” he said.

The curriculum McClay designed gives children a better understanding of winter ecology, but also allows them to enjoy their time outside.

“I’m thankful for SnowSchool letting us come and have a great time, which I did,” said one fourth grade participant. “I learned all about the outdoors and even more about snow. I had an awesome time and will remember it forever.”

SnowSchool in Idaho City

Students from Idaho City get hands on experience analyzing snow conditions and make connections between winter snowpack and their water sources.

“It’s extremely important for the kids to realize, that this snow right here is in their backyard, and actually for Idaho City, this is their drinking water,” said Brian Hunicke, superintendent of Basin School District. “This is literally a half
mile from where the water goes into a sand trap and comes right into our school.”

The site in Idaho City is also on the flight path for the NASA SnowEx Mission and the data the students collect as citizen-scientists helps researchers at Boise State with their work.