Montana State University

MSU researcher and fifth graders to present at snow science conference

July 28, 2008 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

Andrew Slaughter (center) and fifth graders Micah Robin (left) and Isabella Sarmiento pose in the Ophir School library. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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When Montana State University doctoral student Andrew Slaughter presents at this fall's International Snow Science Workshop, he'll be accompanied by two unlikely co-presenters: fifth graders Micah Robin and Isabella Sarmiento.

The trio will give a presentation on avalanche safety and snow science that was written by fifth graders at Ophir School, an elementary school 15 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

Slaughter, a doctoral student in MSU's civil engineering department, spent the past school year helping teach science at the school, an experience made possible by the MSU chapter of the national GK-12 program.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, GK-12 partners graduate students with teachers at rural schools like Ophir. This year marked the fourth for the program, which is coordinated by MSU's Big Sky Institute.

"The program as a whole gives the selected graduate students an opportunity to hone their teaching and communication skills in science and helps them get K-12 students interested in science," said GK-12 program manager Lisa Rew.

Slaughter was one of seven teaching fellows sent to schools around the Gallatin Valley, as well as to one school in Wyoming. All the fellows came from either science or engineering departments; and most, like Slaughter, went without any classroom experience.

"I've always had a desire to teach and was hoping to show the students that math, science and engineering is exciting," Slaughter said.

Slaughter worked with the Ophir science teacher to develop a lesson plan that took advantage of Slaughter's expertise in snow science. The goal was to present the students with more in-depth science than the average elementary school curriculum. Many of Slaughter's lessons took advantage of Ophir's mountain locale and involved activities like outings with the area ski patrol and finding a buried avalanche beacon.

"I was often surprised by the students' excitement level," Slaughter said. "Also, it was comfortable for me and felt natural; I enjoyed the challenge of taking my Ph.D. level of looking at snow and making it accessible for fifth graders."

But Slaughter's time at Ophir also pushed him to teach basic science, not just snow and engineering. He said that once he got used to being in charge of the class, it was easy to transition from one science lesson to another throughout the year.

"It's a continuum," he said. "One topic might be very specific, but it's related to other topics as well."

Slaughter hopes to become an engineering professor and researcher after he finishes his doctorate next year so that he can continue studying cold environments.

GK-12 fellows normally produce an informational poster about their teaching experiences that they can present at academic meetings and conference, but this year, Slaughter decided to do things a bit differently. He let his fifth graders do the work and take credit for it.

Slaughter submitted the student-written poster to the International Snow Science Workshop and got it accepted at the conference. As an added bonus, he held an essay contest to choose two students to go with him to the conference in Whistler, Canada, and help show off the poster to hundreds of snow scientists from around the world. Slaughter said he's still working with Ophir School to raise money for the trip, which will happen in September.

One of the Ophir presenters, Isabella Sarmiento, 11, said she was excited to go to the conference. Originally from Venezuela, Isabella said Slaughter showed her that snow is more complicated that she ever imagined.

"At first, when we first moved here, I was like snow? It freezes up in the air," she said. Now knows that there are six types of snow that each behave differently, and she learned a lot about what causes avalanches.

Her presentation partner, Micah Robin, 11, agreed, adding that he learned things in class that will help keep him safe on the ski hill, like how to use an avalanche beacon and how to dig a snow pit to check for avalanche danger.

"I think it was a fun class," Micah said. "It's just kind of cool, how much there is about snow that nobody would think about."

Related Stories:

Big Sky Institute names assistant director,, Jan. 9, 2008

Volunteers help MSU sample Big Sky streams,, Sept. 13, 2005

MSU sends teams to Montana schools to explain Mars mission,, Jan. 15, 2004

MSU scientists begin new avalanche project,, March 1, 2003

Contact: Andrew Slaughter, (406) 582-9429 or