Environmental Education Collaboration Brings the Classroom Outside at Heavenly | South of Lake Tahoe

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The final fifth-grade class from the Lake Tahoe Unified School District (LTUSD) enjoyed an educational field trip to the summit on Heavenly Thursday. Through a Vail Resorts EpicPromise grant, staff from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), LTUSD Vocational Technical Training Team, Heavenly Mountain Resort, Tahoe Institute for Natural Sciences (TINS), and the Sierra Avalanche Center have partnered to offer the Winter Adventure Program once again.

“My favorite part of snowshoeing was the scavenger hunt at the animal station. I liked it because we got to get up, move around and do things on our own,” said Niah, a fifth-grade student at Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School.

This program allows every fifth grader at Lake Tahoe Unified School and Zephyr Elementary School to snowshoe at Heavenly Mountain Resort and learn about science, snowmaking, winter wildlife and safety in the snow, according to TRPA.

“We don’t need four walls and a whiteboard to teach winter science lessons,” said Victoria Ortiz, TRPA’s community engagement manager. “These field trips take the class outdoors and bring the material to life by allowing students to learn with all of their senses.”

Throughout the season, nearly 300 enthusiastic students board the Heavenly Tram and disembark at the top of the mountain. There, they put on snowshoes and split into three groups that rotate between the interactive stations.

At the first station, Kendal Scott of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) introduces students to the winter adaptations of animals. She explains which species depend on hibernation, migration, and tolerance to withstand the freezing temperatures of Lake Tahoe. Then, students search the area for clues about local animals, such as droppings, footprints, and tufts of fur.

“Science concepts come easily to students when they learn in the same snowy alpine habitat we’re talking about. When I ask, ‘Where is the lowest point in the Tahoe Basin?’ all they have to do is look down the hill to see it’s the lake,” Kendal said, education manager for TINS.

Nearby, seasoned Heavenly Snowmakers Joe Flores and Victor Gutierrez teach students the science of snowmaking. They demonstrate the equipment needed to create the millions of pounds of snow needed to establish and maintain a strong base in Heavenly. Next, students begin measuring snow depth and calculating wet bulb temperature to understand the formulas needed to make snow.

“It’s great to bring the next generation of skiers and snowboarders here on the mountain for a behind-the-scenes look at snowmaking,” said Bryan Hickman, Senior Manager – Snow Surfaces at Heavenly. “Snowmaking is a critical part of our mountain operations at Heavenly, and its importance will only grow as we fight climate change. It was incredibly meaningful for our team to work with these students as we strive to foster a love of science, snowmaking and the outdoors.

Finally, students walk to the top of Groove Chair where the Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC) explains the three elements needed to trigger an avalanche. Students examine collapsible microscopes to discern the shapes of snow crystals and learn the protocol used in the backcountry to test snowpack.

“A very small percentage of fifth graders in California or Nevada hear avalanche bombs, but that’s normal for kids in Tahoe,” said David Reichel, executive director of SAC. “This program allows us to explain what avalanches are to children who grow up surrounded by avalanche terrain.”
A frequent highlight for students is meeting Heavenly’s avalanche rescue dogs. The ski patrol explains how they train the dogs, then gives the students a demonstration of how they dig up people buried by incoming avalanches.

2022 marks the eighth year these organizations have partnered to organize this field trip, following a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19. Next year, they hope to offer a similar program to high school students.

The Winter Adventure program is organized by the South Tahoe Environmental Education Coalition (steec.org), which is dedicated to providing high quality environmental education programs to Lake Tahoe youth.

“Our CTE (Career Technical Education) team is thrilled to have partnered with the phenomenal members of STEEC, bringing these experiences to students,” said Alissa Zertuche, CTE Specialist for LTUSD. “Getting out, meeting community professionals and interacting with other students while learning to be better stewards of the environment is immeasurable. The District CTE team looks forward to many years of partnering with STEEC to improve the student and/or community life.