A Classroom on the Tallest Peak of New England

By Brian Fitzgerald

Eighth grade students from Whitefield, NH visit the summit of Mount Washington in late May.

Beginning this spring, Mount Washington Observatory (MWOBS) staff have been rolling out an expanded suite of school-based programs throughout the region, thanks in part to a bequest from the Sheldon Family Estate.

The gift allows the Observatory to develop and assess K-12 educational programs based on needs and interests expressed by teachers, administrators, students, and families. During conversations with these groups, the need for experiential, hands-on learning was a common refrain. Educators are searching for ways to connect learning beyond the classroom.

Well, what if your classroom was the tallest peak of New England?

In May and June, MWOBS welcomed sixth- through eighth-grade students from three schools in Coos County, NH to pilot a school field trip program in partnership with the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Made possible by the Empowering Coos Youth grant from New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, the pilot program has allowed the Observatory to provide a completely cost-free experience for schools that, like many, have limited funds to support out-of-classroom trips.

Unique to this field trip experience, MWOBS engaged teachers to form student advisory councils with volunteer student leaders from each school to support the planning process on behalf of their peers.

The student leaders selected from a range of topics and activities, aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which could be conducted during their Mount Washington visit while still connecting with subjects being covered in their classrooms.

Beyond funding, planning and coordination of a field experience stand out as additional barriers for schools that want to visit Mount Washington. For years, many determined teachers and schools have been planning visits to the summit, and in some cases have arranged special group tours of the Observatory’s weather station. With so many Mount Washington partners active on the mountain, it can be challenging to coordinate a visit, especially for first-time visitors. A new approach was clearly needed.

For participating schools this spring, the Observatory took the lead to help coordinate a visit from start to finish in partnership with local busing companies, the Cog Railway, and Mount Washington State Park.

MWOBS educators joined students for their entire field trip, guiding the experience from the moment they arrived at the base of the mountain until it was time to head back on the school bus. The Observatory hosted nearly 170 students across four trips from Stratford School, Groveton High School, and Whitefield Elementary School.

While each trip varied based on student, teacher, and school interest, each experience was composed of a welcoming activity at the Cog Railway base station, a guided train ride up and down the mountain, one hour of summit activities, and a concluding activity back down at the Cog base.

Just like the weather on the summit, each trip had its own flavor. For two groups, weather observation was a primary focus, with students collecting and observing weather data to provide evidence of how temperature and barometric pressure change with elevation.

In addition to data collection, students on each trip toured the Observatory’s weather station and learned from MWOBS scientists why Mount Washington experiences such world-renowned extreme weather.

For other groups, students took interest in the historical and cultural aspects of Mount Washington through the lens of the Cog Railway and historic structures and events witnessed on the summit.

Students from one group were in the midst of a wind turbine engineering challenge that pushed experimentation with different turbine blade designs to achieve an efficient and effective means of generating energy. They brought their turbine designs to the summit to test in the same location where MWOBS staff welcome private and government groups to test equipment in a “natural laboratory,” while also learning about the Observatory’s own engineering work to develop custom anemometers for measuring wind speeds and directions in unique environments.

Students learn about measuring precipitation on Mount Washington.

Across the span of roughly a week, student groups witnessed 50-mile per hour winds, snow, record-breaking warmth, sub-freezing temperatures, and surprisingly calm, clear, and insect-filled skies. They took class photos at the summit sign, climbed to the top of the instrument tower, and spread their wings to fly on the observation deck, coming close to the sensation of standing in a hurricane.

For many students, this was their first visit to a mountain that is essentially in their backyard but can feel like visiting another planet.

Heading back down on the train and later at school, students reflected on the experience with the end of the school year drawing near. At Stratford Public School, lead teacher Rebecca Oberti organized a culmination event for students to share pizza and presentations from their trip with their peers, family members, and MWOBS staff in attendance.

For other groups, the visit itself was a culminating experience for a school year filled with hard work and growing knowledge about the world around them.

As MWOBS staff continue to gather participant and partner feedback, one thing is clear: the opportunity for students to spend any time, no matter how short, on Mount Washington is worth the effort to connect New Hampshire’s youth with this important cultural and scientific landmark.

MWOBS education staff will take lessons learned from this spring, along with continued input from local educators and advisors to redevelop the field trip program this summer ahead of a broader launch of school-based programs for the 2023-24 school year.

In addition to field trips, educators from MWOBS will offer virtual programs, school day and after-programs, curricula and other educational resources, and teacher professional development experiences such as the Arctic Wednesdays program.

Based on conversations with educators around the region, there is significant interest from schools to participate in a field trip experience as part of a broader relationship with Mount Washington. To try to overcome financial hurdles along the way, MWOBS will continue to seek funders to offer low- and no-cost programs for youth in a region.

While it is still early days for this fledgling field trip program, MWOBS staff look to a not-too-distant future when every New Hampshire student is able to visit the tallest peak in New England.

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Mount Washington Observatory is a nonprofit research and educational institution. Our work in mountain meteorology and climate science relies on your financial support. If you value our mission, please donate today.

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