NEWBURYPORT — They ski on it, shovel it and play in it when Mother Nature dumps a blanket of it on their front lawns. But what do kids really know about snow?
Quite a lot, actually, if they are seventh-graders at the Rupert A. Nock Middle School who took part in a place-based learning exercise this week.
The lesson saw the students transforming the snow-capped soccer fields behind the school into a community of snow shelters, or quinzhees, as the Native Americans called them.
The students learned that being aware of the unique properties of snow and water has, for centuries, meant the difference between life and death for humans stranded in the backcountry amid freezing conditions.
And on a more personal level, they learned why past efforts to build tunnels or snow forts in their own backyards might have failed. It turns out it all comes down to science.
“When you’re shoveling, you break up the crystal lattice,” said seventh-grader Brendan Tribastone, who was working yesterday to carve out the interior of his quinzhee with help from Liam Bixby and Kenny Hodge. “You have to let it reform.”
A quinzhee is a temporary, less-sturdy version of an Igloo, but is built on the same principles of snow as insulation that Inuit tribes have employed to shelter them from the elements since as early as 1576.
The design starts with creating a 6- to 8-foot pile of snow, then letting it `sinter,’ or strengthen, for three hours — one to two hours if you’re in an emergency situation and need to escape the cold.
As 7 Crimson teacher John Reynolds described the sintering process, when water begins to freeze, it makes a crystalline structure known as a crystal lattice, but those crystals are down during the process of shoveling or piling up the snow. By letting it sit for a while, or sinter, those crystals reform, allowing for safe construction of the interior of the quinzhee.