Winter: An Enchanting Time of Year

Nature enchants and inspires us, especially in winter, when new views of the celestial sky are revealed. Trees reach out bare limbs and tempt us to climb up. Cold weather is the perfect time to engage in learning more about the various life sciences, such as biology, botany, environmental science, astronomy and zoology, while also experiencing healthy fitness activities like hiking too. Will it snow this winter? The weatherman is always giving us a daily update on that topic.

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Did you know all snowflakes follow a 6-sided pattern when they are formed? They do! This makes them valuable to learn from weather to geometry, to simple chemistry, physics and even math!

Have you ever really observed a snowflake up close? Did you know this about snowflakes – they are rarely alike, but they always have six sides. In fact, snowflakes are a great way to demonstrate geometry, or describe fractals. Snowflakes are frozen water molecules that can be beautiful, fun to make and observe and they can help us teach everything from weather to geometry, to simple chemistry, physics and even math! That is a great way to integrate a lesson, such as “STEM” learning requires.

You may have heard of the acronym “STEM” In recent years, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) became an exciting trend in education. Recently, an offshoot of this, STEAM, has emerged, adding Art into the mix. Art is especially important for developing the critical thinking and creativity skills needed to excel in the sciences.

STEM + Art = STEAM

The objectives of the STEAM movement are to:

  • Transform research policy to place Art + Design at the center of STEM
  • Encourage integration of Art + Design in K–12 education
  • Influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation

At the Chattahoochee Nature Center we have worked to bring STEM into focus, using nature and outdoor learning as a foundation for K-12 students. We have been part of this national education trend for several years, in partnership with metro school systems.

With our Development Department working closely with our Education Department and thanks to generous grants, especially from companies like 3M and other corporate donors, we have developed exciting natural science pilot programs. CNC launched the first grant for five elementary schools three years ago and just this year a new grant was initiated for five middle schools, using STEAM curriculum methodology with our talented Education Department in collaboration with the Fulton County Charter School System and five local middle schools.

By blending these curricula and using life sciences as the context, we are able to provide foundational blended learning to inspire students. This will help them in the future as they consider future careers and also as they devise potential solutions for existing and future challenges that we can’t even anticipate yet.

“Lives are snowflakes – unique in detail, forming patterns we have seen before, but as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There’s not a chance you’d mistake one for another, after a minute’s close inspection).”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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Notice how similar the Peregrine Falcon looks during flight to the B-2 bomber. This is “biomimicry” – humans design following natural form.

Nature provides excellent engineering examples; hence mankind’s focus on ‘biomimicry.’ For instance, the aerospace industry has been copying birds in flight since the first airplane was launched. Being confident in the fundamentals of the natural sciences is essential, but knowing how science and engineering are also linked to math can give students a head start on problem solving with the ‘big picture’ as they begin to comprehend how multiple systems interconnect.

Let’s consider that snowflake again. How does it form? Water molecules are composed of oxygen atoms. When those atoms freeze, they have strong attractions to the electron clouds of two hydrogen atoms that pull close but leave the two ends positively charged, the center of the “V” is more negatively charged. As the water molecules touch, the negatively and positively charged parts of different particles join together in a very specific three-dimensional pattern with precise six-sided symmetry. Each water molecule that joins that snowflake reflects this pattern until eventually its macroscopic six-sided shape is formed. In fact, that single snowflake demonstrates a finite space, with infinite designs, describing fractals. The average snowflake can be made up of up to 180 billion molecules of water! If you draw it, you will see a geometric design that is a mathematical equation. It is a classic example of how to closely examine chemistry, physics, math (geometry), and even art! Did you ever cut out a piece of paper to look like a snow flake?

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You can even extend the lesson to consider ‘water.’ Of course, it is this essential natural resource that we all depend on that snow is composed of. About 98% of the Earth’s water is in the oceans, yet only 2% is fresh water. About 90% of that fresh water is permanently frozen, mostly locked up in the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. About 12% of the Earth’s surface land is covered by permanent ice and snow. When you consider how much snow falls just in the USA each year, it is indeed wondrous!

The enchantment of nature is how it stimulates our curiosity. We learn about ourselves, even while we explore other topics and learn about other organisms. It’s recognizing how big the world beyond our world is. It’s appreciating our native animals as well as marveling at microscopic macro invertebrates. It’s wondering at everything yet to be discovered as we explore and observe the fascinating world around us.

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That is what we do here at the Chattahoochee Nature Center.  Our staff, volunteers and docents enjoy helping visitors and students alike witness nature’s allure daily. This winter, give some thought to how creative and mysterious nature is when you get outside for a hike. Lean against a tree and look up at the stars at night. Then try to catch a snowflake if it snows. Imagine how big the universe is and how we all play a part in being a part of it.

The Mission of the Chattahoochee Nature Center is to connect people with nature. Learn more at www.chattnaturecenter.org.