'So cool!' Teachers share lessons from summit of Mt. Washington

By Rachael Brown

rachael-brown-mt-w1Kim Mathison and Colleen Koroski of Conway Elementary School visit Mount Washington as part of Arctic Wednesdays. (COURTESY PHOTO)MOUNT WASHINGTON — Arctic Wednesdays, the pilot professional development program that brings the remote landscape of Mount Washington's summit to nearby classrooms in the valley, is only a couple of months old but is already attracting a large fan base.

Starting in January, the Mount Washington Observatory, helped by supporting partners and donors, began bringing science teachers from various schools and grade levels to the summit.

Twelve teachers from Berlin, Conway and Tamworth, along with Fryeburg and Lovell, Maine, got the experience of a lifetime, riding the Snow Cat to the top of New Hampshire's tallest peak, enjoying a meal at 6,288 feet, shadowing the weather observers and trying to snap photos of the Obs' camera-shy feline mascot, Marty.

Their findings and adventures were reported back to the students by video conferencing. Some teachers even made their own videos and recorded the adventure through Facebook Live.

The highlight, said the teachers, was being able to bring their trip and their knowledge right back to their classrooms.

"The best part was being able to connect with the kids. Their eyes were wide open," said Heidi Belle-Isle, a sixth-grade teacher from Pine Tree School in Center Conway.

According to Brian Fitzgerald, director of education, the program ran from January through Friday, March 15.

"Two teachers travel to the summit in coordination with the Wednesday shift change at the Observatory, twice in January, in February and in March, leaving room for bad weather," he explained, adding the program is meant to support teachers in their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) efforts.

The cost of the program comes out of professional development funds along with money from this year's sponsors: White Mountain Oil and Propane, the Kiwanis Club of Mount Washington Valley and Kestrel Weather Meters, an environmental equipment manufacturer based in Boothwyn, Pa.

Kestrel also donated the Kestrel 5000, which measures 11 weather parameters including temperature, wind speed, humidity and barometric pressure, for the teachers to use.

Teachers met for orientation before the program began.

Part of the project includes a community blog written by the teachers. The teachers work in teams to travel up to the summit — one writes the pretrip blog and the other the after-trip blog.

Along with Belle-Isle, other participating teachers, most of whom had heard about Arctic Wednesdays through word-of-mouth were: Karl Nordlund, fourth-grade teacher and Matt Krug, fifth-grade teacher at K.A. Brett School in Tamworth; Joel Rhymer and Dylan Harry, Joy Norkin and Joel Rhymer from Fryeburg Academy; Colleen Koroski, third-grade teacher, and Kim Mathison, sixth-grade teacher, from Conway Elementary; Jaime Welch, Berlin Middle School; Scott Lajoie, Kennett High School in Conway; and Kelley Brown and Becky Nason of New Suncook Elementary in Lovell, Maine.

So why winter, why Arctic?

"It is all about the extremes. This is what interests people and the kids, too," said Fitzgerald,

Will Broussard, outreach coordinator at the Obs, added: "It is powerful to establish a good connection with teachers and a great way to keep them involved to see what we are doing at the summit."

The summit experience wasn't just about science, Fitzgerald said. It also filtered into other disciplines.

"In Fryeburg at the Academy, with English language learners, one project was to translate discoveries into French. In Colleen Koroski's third grade classroom at Conway Elementary, students wrote about and explained windchill," he said.

Then there were the quirky details, which really captured teachers' and students' attention.

For example, in her post-trip blog, Norkin of Fryeburg Academy noted: "So they really do clean all of them (weather stations) off by hand. It seems so unrealistic to think that guys are out there manually removing ice and snow on the side of Mount Washington for weather data collection.

She quoted a student in her blog as saying, "It is so cool. Just think, we look at that mountain all of the time heading to Walmart and stuff, and there are really actual people up there working."

When the Arctic Wednesdays program is over, the participants will offer a review of what they learned, what the students learned and recommendations for next year.

On April 1, Fitzgerald and Broussard will give a presentation on the program at the spring conference of the New Hampshire Science Teachers Association at Pinkerton Academy in Derry.

Of course, when you are planning a program to the home of the "World's Worst Weather," there are bound to be some changes of plan. Like only getting to spend 30 minutes at the summit.

The first group of teachers rode to the summit Jan. 11, following a snowfall the night before. On board the shift change ride were Nordlund and Krug from Tamworth, along with two volunteer cooks, three weather observers, a researcher and Sharon Schilling, observatory president.

Nordlund noted later: "We broke a record — over six hours to get to the top — and had lots of conversations getting to know one another. We took weather readings at 4,100 feet with the Kestrel and arrived around 5 o'clock.

"We couldn't do a live feed, but we spent about a half-hour at the summit. We drove down in the dark, the wind was howling, it was snowing, so neat, " said Nordlund, adding that Tom Padham, a weather observer and education specialist, connected with Nordlund's classroom while they were making the long journey.

"The video feed was broadcast on a big screen in the classroom, and when the kids had questions, they sat at an individual computer to ask. They had really good questions," said Nordlund.

They included: What is the coldest temperature? What is the highest wind speed? How many days do you stay up there? What do you eat? What was the worst weather? What was the hottest day?

Nordlund and Krug did weather units prior to their trip to prepare the class.

"We did a history of Mount Washington. A lot of kids didn't know what is in our backyard. We went over the different zones — Alpine, above tree line. A few kids have hiked Mount Washington, but only six out of 24 fourth-graders had been up there and in only one in the fifth grade," said Nordlund.

He added: "This has been so great to share with the kids. Fourth-graders love science — it is real to them."

Koroski and Mathison from Conway Elementary traveled to the summit Feb. 28. Their trip had already been postponed three times because of weather.

"I had been to the summit all seasons except winter," Mathison said. "The ride up was comfortable, but a little scary, being that we were so close to the edge and the Snow Cat is so wide," said Mathison.

It took three hours to get to the top. They, too, stopped at 4,000 feet and again at 5,400 feet to take readings on the Kestrel.

"We had time for conversations on the way up, talking to the new president (Schilling) about the background of the Observatory, listening to the observers talk about the Century Club, where they try to walk the deck standing upright in 100 mph winds," Mathison said.

"When we arrived we made a human chain to offload supplies from the Cat and then reload the Cat for the trip down," she added. They were treated to a lunch of sandwiches, pasta salad and soup.

On this trip, the teachers were able to sit in on the observers' meetings.

"We toured the weather instrument room, saw what they were recording, like the registered wind speed. On that day it was low, I think about 20 mph. Then we sat in on the transition meeting for shift change," said Mathison.

Mathison and Koroski also got to climb up to what seems like a 90-degree angle stairway to the observation tower.

"You couldn't have a fear of heights. One of the observers took a crowbar with him to knock ice off the supporting poles so the ice doesn't interfere with instruments," explained Mathison.

The observers go up the tower to collect the precipitation canister, which they carry down and bring inside to melt the snow to get precipitation measurements.

Because of the rescheduling, both Mathison and Koroski's classes were on the slopes for ESSC Ski Day.

Again, Padham was able to conduct a video conference for them once they were back in the classroom.

"The next day, Tom did a video conference for 45 minutes for our classes. One of the student's fathers, Jake Odell, a computer technician, came into our class. He had spent 2 1/2 years on the summit. He converted the paper readings to computer recordings and files when he worked there," said Mathison.

The students gained a vivid understanding of life atop Mount Washington

"They asked all sorts of questions about the job — what they eat, about the instruments and, if the weather is bad, do they still go out," she added.

The Conway students had been studying weather in preparation for Arctic Wednesdays,

"We are shifting what we teach with Next Generation Science," Koroski said. "We are looking at weather and how it is measured. We have a weather station on our roof and are linked to Weather Underground. We can see weather at other stations and changes right before our eyes."

Koroski presented a challenge to her students.

"I was thinking about ideas before the trip and wrote a letter from the observers to the class to ask if they could explain windchill. Lots of kids come to the summit and ask about this. The class worked on Google Drive, created links and a booklet explaining windchill," explained Koroski.

"With Mount Washington being right in our backyard, and so many didn't know much about it. I think this was a fabulous program, I would love to go up again," she said.

Belle-Isle of Pine Tree School and Scott Lajoe of Kennett journeyed up on March 10.

"Scott and I worked together at Kennett in 1995. He is on the education committee at the Observatory and asked if I was interested in going, and I thought what a cool experience," Belle-Isle said. "We were scheduled to go on Wednesday and were rescheduled for Friday."

"We had been studying earthquakes and geology in the beginning of the year, which leads into how the mountain in our backyard was formed," she said.

"This year we will be making wind turbines and designing a space probe to look at other planets and the moon," she added.

Belle-Isle had a different idea of how to video conference the experience.

"I made a suggestion that my kids go to the Discovery Center (the observatory's location in North Conway) for the conference in case I didn't make it because of weather. After lunch at the summit, we were touring the weather statio,n and I could hear my kids — I could tell it was my classroom.

"In the corner of the screen you could see them in the Discovery Center," she said, adding she would like to suggest that future Arctic Wednesday classes meet at the center. "The technology is right there, and students can also explore the center."

The students asked the observers really good questions, she said.

"They wanted to know all about the staff, what they do, how they live on top, what they eat," said Belle-Isle.

Speaking of eating, Belle-Isle shared the tale of an unusual snack she got to experience at the summit.

"We had to scrape the rime ice of the summit sign, to show we were there. Sharon suggested I try a piece. It was really interesting. The outside melts and what is left inside is hard to explain — like a rubber ball, not hard like ice, but not soft, either.

For a moment, she wavered — "Should I eat it?"

But, she said, "I chowed down, didn't want to disappoint my kids."

As for Mathison, "This was in the top five experiences of my life, and it was my birthday week," she said.

"For Colleen and me, it was a bucket list we get to share," said Mathison, adding, "And when I get jazzed, the kids get jazzed."

For more information go to www.mountwashington.org.