Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Eye on the Summer Skies

Keystone Science School: An eye on the summer skies

Thinking Outside the Classroom

The season of long days, barbecues, and the sweet smell of sunscreen is upon us. At Keystone Science School, we're enjoying the warm weather with children from across Summit County and beyond during our Summer Camp programs. Whether we're out camping or on our 23-acre campus, exploring the night sky is an integral part of our programs. And now that summer is here, there is much to explore!

Summer officially kicked off on the morning of June 21st when the North Pole tipped its hat to the sun more than it does any other day of the year. During the summer solstice (Latin for “sun standing still”) the Earth's northern hemisphere experiences its longest day of the year while the opposite effect is occurring in the southern half of the globe. As Earth makes its annual trek around the sun, its path is slightly elliptical. It is a misconception to think that the Earth is closer to the sun during the summer months. While we enjoy the long hours of sunlight and the warmth that it brings, July 3 signifies the aphelion, or when Earth will be farthest from the sun in its orbit. We are closest to the sun during the perihelion on January 4th, when we are actually three million miles closer (at a mere 91,445,000 miles).

The marking of the summer solstice, or midsummer, brings with it many traditions and cultural celebrations. Several pagan religious holidays are based on the seasonal solstices. In ancient China, their celebration of the summer solstice honored the feminine Yin forces, while the winter solstice celebrated the masculine Yang forces. Much speculation still surrounds prehistoric structures found in Europe such as Stonehenge, where many believe the summer solstice held a particular significance to those who constructed it.

Now that this year's summer solstice has passed, the hours of sunlight are beginning to slowly fade. But with that brings the nighttime sky and all the majestic beauty the heavenly bodies have to offer. Folks in Summit County are fortunate to have a spectacular view of the nighttime sky. There is a mess of celestial bodies in the sky, and it can be very overwhelming to make sense of them. 

For beginners with a keen eye for the skies, there are a few summer constellations worth noting as you gaze upward on a clear evening. One of the easiest to find is the Big Dipper, which can be seen in the northwest skies after sundown. If you follow the outer edge of the dipper drawing an imaginary line to the right, you will come to a bright star called Polaris — The North Star. Another simple pattern visible this time of year is the Summer Triangle, with the bright star of Vega at the top, Daneb and Altair bottom left and right.

Summer is also a great time for us to get a glimpse of the constellation Sagittarius. The brighter stars of the archer Sagittarius form a “teapot shape” and may be seen above the southern horizon. As you gaze towards Sagittarius, you are actually looking towards the center of our very own Milky Way Galaxy! If you are hearty enough make it past midnight, the planet Jupiter can also be seen rising high in the sky during the pre-dawn hours.

This summer, whether you enjoy the long warm summer days, or relish in the spectacular summer night skies, take a moment to appreciate the wonder and awe of the universe around us. Recognize the fascinating history and legends of centuries worth of sky-gazing. And most of all, get outside and celebrate the natural world around us!

Daniel Eberle & Daniel Rudolf are camp staff at Keystone Science School. Explore the summer sky with the science school at one of our Starquest Programs happening every Wednesday night. Contact us for more information at (970) 468-2098. 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Wading into Science

Wading into Science
Caroline Moellering is the School Programs Coordinator at Keystone Science School.

When thinking about summertime in Summit County, your mind might immediately jump to mountains and trails — hiking, mountain biking, climbing and running being the popular recreational activities that they are. Even in this high alpine environment, however, we are lucky enough to have another wonderful source of recreation: water, in the form of lakes and rivers. As our local bodies of water are so close to their sources — melting snow — they're often too cold for swimming and other contact sports, but nonetheless are an aesthetically pleasing part of our environment, an important resource and, of course, provide a rich opportunity to learn about science and nature.

As our local rivers start to emerge from their blanket of ice and snow, there are lots of interesting changes to observe. The most obvious change you might notice as the weather warms is the amount of water flowing through the river. To get a rough measurement of this, choose a specific spot on a river, place a tall, sturdy stick in the water, and mark the water level. Try this on different days (and even times of day) and note the air temperature in each instance. Do you see any patterns? Are levels higher or lower in relation to the air temperature?

Another fun thing to measure in a river is its surface velocity (or how fast it flows) and to determine how that velocity changes as the amount of water in the river increases. One student at Keystone Science School was excited to share a story about how he made a boat out of sticks and grass with his parents, then sent the boat down the river to see what it would do. This is a great way to measure surface velocity. To try it, measure a relatively straight section of river and create a small craft out of natural materials you find on the river bank (you could even simply use a small, lightweight stick). Then time how long it takes for your object to get from the beginning to the end of that measured section. The distance divided by the time gives you the surface velocity. Try doing this at different times throughout the summer to see how the numbers change with the rise and fall of water levels. Water can run very quickly and strongly at times, so always be very careful as you're performing your experiments!

While you're studying the amount of water, take note of the shape of the river and the changes that occur as the river rises. In spring, when water levels tend to be higher, you will be able to see higher rates of erosion along the stream banks (especially on the outside of curves), which makes the stream channels a little wider. The river bed materials picked up by water are dropped off in other parts of the stream when the water slows down. Watch your stick/boat to see how the water starts to slow down on the inside of a curve. At those points you will probably find what looks like a ‘beach' of rocks or gravel deposited by the water.

These are just a couple of examples of the many things you can learn about our local rivers by getting out and exploring. Keep an eye out, too, for signs of animals (trout and beavers are plentiful), riverbank vegetation, and notice what kinds of bugs hang out around the water. There's a whole world to discover when you take the time to investigate!

Caroline Moellering is the School Programs Coordinator at Keystone Science School. She can be reached at (970) 468-2098. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Teaching Geology and a ‘Sense of Place'

Keystone Science School: Teaching Geology and a ‘Sense of Place'
Teaching geology and mining brings a new dimension to knowing Summit County

By Dave Miller
School Programs Director, Keystone Science School

At the Keystone Science School (KSS), we often talk about the concept of “sense of place” — a feeling of connection or attachment to a physical area: a region, a town, or even a plot of land. As human beings, we crave connection, and developing a sense of place inspires us to get to know our surroundings better, to learn and share its history, and in the process deepen our enjoyment of it and pride in it.

In Summit County, it's hard not to be impressed by the sight of the majestic Rocky Mountains. At KSS, we're proud to call these mountains ‘our place' and strive to honor it by teaching our students about its natural and human history. What better focus for this goal than the study of our local geology and rich mining history?

Generally speaking, geology is the study of rocks. Rocks can be broken into three basic types: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. Igneous rock is formed from cooling lava or magma, metamorphic rock is existing rock transformed deep in the earth by heat and pressure, and sedimentary rock is formed through the fusing of sediments by weathering and erosion. In Summit County, all three basic rock types exist, but the majority is igneous and metamorphic.

It can be tough to tell the difference between igneous and metamorphic rocks at first, but a good way to start is to take a look at the size of the crystals that form them. Igneous rocks typically have larger crystals because they've had a chance to cool slowly under the earth's surface. Metamorphic rocks look much denser, and sometimes have folds or curves which make them look like a layered cake, due to heat and pressure which has chemically altered and bended the rock. The next time you're out on a trail, pick up a few medium-sized rocks and see if you can tell which kind they are.

Valuable minerals, such as gold and silver, sometimes make up part of the sediment that makes up rocks. Weathering, erosion, and mountain-building episodes bring the rocks, with their veins of gold and silver, to the Earth's surface where they can be extracted. Summit County became famous in 1859 when gold was discovered here. Miners flocked to this area to try their luck at finding nuggets and flakes through placer mining, or the extraction of minerals from loose rock and sand. Many of these techniques involved water: hydraulic mining, for example, was a method in which high-pressure jets of water were directed against hillsides, flushing dirt and rock into large sluice boxes that helped filter out the gold (you can still see evidence of this practice in what look like avalanche chutes on exposed areas of local hillsides). Other methods were panning — which you can still do today at Breckenridge's Country Boy mine — and dredging, in which large machines collected and combed through the gravel in local riverbeds.

Hike just about anywhere in Summit County and you'll probably come across some remnants of prospecting and mining. To the uninformed eye, they might look simply like old abandoned buildings and tools, but they hold important clues about the history of mining (and the lives of miners) in Summit County. Never enter a mine, and never take anything from a mining site — these historical sites are part of what makes Summit County unique.

If you'd like to learn more, check out the new Breckenridge Open Space interpretive trail on Iowa Hill that guides you through a hydraulic placer mine. Along the trail you can learn about the processes involved and see firsthand the methods and tools that were used. Another area to explore is Peru Gulch in Keystone, which was home to several mines, or the historic town of Montezuma (which was once larger than the town of Breckenridge!). The more you explore and learn about our county's rich history and geological diversity, the more you'll develop your own “sense of place.”

Dave Miller is the school programs director at Keystone Science School. He can be reached at To learn more about Keystone Science School, call (970) 468-2098 or visit

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What is Camp?

 What is Camp?

Joel Egbert, Camp Director

Here in Colorado, as the snow starts to melt and the days become longer, our thoughts start to turn from skiing and snowboarding to hiking, biking, sailing — all the joys of summertime in the mountains. Kids become energized and antsy at the prospect of getting outside more, and the fast-approaching end of the school year gets parents thinking about what they can do to keep their kids engaged and fulfilled over the summer.

Frederick William Gunn, a 19th-century Connecticut schoolmaster widely recognized as the originator of the camp concept, led mandatory outdoor trips with his prep school students to “strengthen their character, self-discipline, and muscle.” 150 years later, camp has become a cultural pillar in our country, with an estimated 10 million children attending approximately 12,000 summer camps annually in the United States. The American Camp Association hopes that by the year 2020, those numbers will double.

I've worked in the camp industry for 12 years, creating outdoor programs for children of all ages and circumstances. Whether they're adventurers or homebodies, every kid walks away from camp changed in a profound way. S'mores are fantastic, Capture the Flag is about as much fun as you can have with a tablecloth, and that song about the Hot Pink Gorilla is awesome, but camp affects change on a much deeper level. Here are some of the ways how:

Campers develop independence and coping skills. Even when you're somewhere as fun as camp, being away from home is rough. Missing home is normal. However, young kids who have the opportunity to learn how to manage outside the comfortable structure of home are better poised for confident decision-making as they grow into adults. Some colleges claim recent increases of up to 25% in freshman dropouts due to homesickness. I wonder how many of those had never before been away from home?

Campers develop self-awareness and social skills. When kids are small, their friendships often come as a result of who their parents choose to spend time with. Camp is an opportunity for children to discover who they are away from their families and to find kindred spirits. Thrust into a close-knit, small-group environment, they're also compelled to learn how to function as part of a team.

Campers experience a new environment full of new activities and adventures. Camp is like diving headfirst into a different world. Imagine what Alice felt like when she fell through the rabbit hole. It's unfamiliar and maybe a little scary, but pretty fascinating, too. Camp has its own culture and traditions: campfires, meals, songs, ceremonies. Filtered through the imagination of a child, nature becomes better than Disneyland, magic is real, and counselors are superheroes!

Camp improves athletic, artistic, and intellectual skills. Games, crafts, and imagination-based activities are important. They can both provide clues to and foster a child's development and sense of self. They teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills. At camp, leaders emerge in kickball games, face paint identifies the bonds of a new tribe, and arts and crafts reveal newly-discovered talents.

Camp fosters appreciation for tradition and relationships. When kids run into each other outside of camp, we're always struck by how intensely they bond over shared knowledge of camp songs, inside jokes, and relationships with favorite counselors. It makes them feel special to be part of such a uniquely joyful, cherished club. This appreciation often lasts well beyond childhood; we know lots of adults who met some of their best friends at camp.

The American Camp Association says “Camp gives kids a world of good.” It's true. But the real secret is that it isn't adults who create the magical world of camp: it's the campers. When given the tools to imagine, create, and express, kids blossom with purpose and ingenuity. The bonus? It's so much fun, they don't even realize how much they're learning.

Joel Egbert is the Camps & Retreats Director of Keystone Science School. He can be reached at To learn more about KSS camp programs for kids ages 5-17, visit our website:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Making Sense of Animal Tracks

Making Sense of Animal Tracks

By Amber Rudeen, Senior Program Instructor

How many times have you been outside, noticed fresh footprints in the snow and wondered what animal left them? At Keystone Science School, we spend a lot of time teaching students about these footprints, also called tracks, and the patterns they follow. Track patterns fall into three main categories: leaper-hoppers, bounders, and waddlers. Knowing what kinds of animals fit into these categories can help you identify tracks in the snow more easily.

Some of the most common leaper-hoppers are squirrels, mice and snowshoe hares. Their track pattern is characterized by four prints grouped together with a space in between the next group of four prints. When these animals jump or hop, they place their hind feet ahead of their front feet. If the animal lives on the ground, its front feet will land on a diagonal, and if it lives in trees its feet will be placed side-by-side. Snowshoe hare tracks are one of the most easily identified track patterns because they have a very specific look — their feet are actually shaped like snowshoes, which helps them stay on top of deep snow in the winter.

Animals in the bounder category include animals with long bodies and short legs, such as weasels and river otters. These animals make two tracks with their front paws, then swing their back legs forward to land in the same spot, giving the impression of two-by-two tracks. If you find some weasel tracks, try to follow them and see if you can find a spot where the animal has tunneled into the snow. Weasels like to travel under the drifts to get closer to their prey, such as mice.

The third type of track pattern is that of waddlers. Coyotes, foxes, lynx and mountain lions — as well as deer, elk and moose — all belong in this category. These animals usually have big, heavy bodies that travel slowly and their tracks look a lot like ours; when we walk or snowshoe we make one track on the right, then the left, then right and so on. In Summit County, keep an eye out for porcupine tracks, which have a pigeon-toed pattern (with feet turned inwards) and drag marks from the animal's body and heavily quilled tail.

Have you ever noticed how dogs behave when you are out on a trail skiing or snowshoeing? They like to bound off the trail to investigate interesting scents and run up and down the trail to greet people or other dogs. Their track patterns are a lot more disorganized than a wild animal's. Coyotes and foxes have dog-like footprints, but are usually on a mission to find prey and so they try to conserve their energy by making a straight and deliberate path. Sometimes they will travel on packed surfaces such as trails or roads because it is easier to get around and when in deep snow, they'll place their front and hind feet in the same place to minimize energy use.

At Keystone Science School, we often find tracks when we're out snowshoeing or cross-county skiing, and students get excited when they're able to figure out what kind of animal made the track we're looking at. Other clues that help us figure out what kind of animal made the tracks include habitat (for example, otter tracks are most likely to be found near rivers), and signs such as hair or scat. Next time you head out to hike, ski, or snowshoe, watch carefully for tracks and patterns and try to figure out what kind of animal made them. Have fun making your own tracks, too!

To learn more about Keystone Science School, please visit our website or contact us at (970) 468-2098.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More than Just Stars

More than Just Stars

By Mitchell Whittier
Keystone Science School Field Instructor

Look up. All around us are massive spheres exploding into storms of fire and light. These glorious object are constantly, shining light on an otherwise dark and empty universe. The light emitted travels unfathomable distances to reach our eyes here on the surface of Earth. Have you noticed?

Many of our students at Keystone Science School come to our campus from urban settings where light pollution hides the majority of the shining stars.  On clear nights in the mountains, they look up and are often stunned by the seemingly infinite numbers of stars.  We are lucky to live in a place that provides such amazing views, both day and night. Our students can view the planets and stars through the high-powered telescope in the Keystone Science School observatory, but all you really need to appreciate the majesty of our mountain night sky, is a warm coat, a little patience, and our light collecting eyes.

When traveling in the wilderness, hikers need to take maps to guide their journeys.  It’s no different when exploring the night sky.  There are many Internet sites that provide free sky maps. A good one we use Find one, print it out, and wait for a clear night. Find a dark spot away from lights and tall buildings and give your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. Try to use a red light to view your sky map, as it will not ruin your night vision powered by the sensitive rod-shaped cells in our eyes.  The naked eye is surprisingly powerful and will allow you to see many stars and constellations.  A pair of binoculars is a great tool to see objects that your eyes alone cannot while still giving a wide enough view to find constellations. 

For your first viewing, try to find the well-known constellation Orion, visible in the Southeast of the early evening sky.  The three stars of Orion’s belt fall in a straight line and are the easiest way to identify the constellation. The bright star Rigel, one of the brightest stars in the night sky, represents one of Orion’s legs, and his two shoulders are represented by the stars Bellatrix and Betelgeuse, which is reddish in color. Betelgeuse means ”armpit of the great one”. Other bright stars make up the two arms, one holding a shield and the other a club. The famous Orion Nebula is located in Orion’s sword hanging from his belt and is so bright that the naked eye can easily see the fuzzy patch of interstellar dust.

Orion is one of the most ancient constellations, formed approximately 1.5 million years ago. It inspired many stories in Native American and Greek mythology and literature, including the story of Orion and Artemis. Legend says that Orion, a great hunter who was half-man, half-god, fell in love with Artemis, the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods. Artemis’ brother Apollo, in an attempt to protect his sister from the powerful hunter, sent a scorpion, called Scorpius to kill Orion while he slept. Artemis, deeply saddened by Orion’s death, became very angry with her brother, who then agreed to put Orion’s body in the sky so she could remember him always.

There are many, many other stars and constellations to explore in the clear night sky over the Rocky Mountains – all you have to do is look up. Have fun and enjoying challenging yourself!

The colors of stars are determined by their temperature
The closest star to Earth, besides our Sun, is Proxima Centauri, located 4.2 light-years away.
Stars often come in pairs (known as binary stars), orbiting a common center of gravity
When stars appear to “twinkle,” it’s actually turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere refracting the light we see.
Most objects in the sky were mapped with telescopes equivelent in magnitude to a simple pair of binoculars. So find a pair and maybe you could start the next great story in the sky!

Keystone Science School offers a weekly opportunity for the public to view the stars from our observatory.  This program, Starquest, provides a chance to learn about celestial objects from our resident instructors and to get an up-close and personal view through our amazing telescope.  For more information, call us at 970.468.2098 or visit

By Mitchell Whittier
Keystone Science School Field Instructor

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Keystone Science School: Snow science 101 - There's more to those flakes than meets the eye

 Keystone Science School: Snow science 101 - There's more to those flakes than meets the eye

Dave Miller

School Program Director

Keystone Science School

Freshly-fallen snow is a big part of what makes Summit County winters magical. It marks the excitement of winter holidays, school breaks and, of course, skiing and snowboarding. We spend a lot of time in the snow at Keystone Science School. Not only do we cross-country ski and snowshoe from our campus, but we look at snow up close and examine it on a scientific level. By doing this, we've learned that snow is much more than simply frozen water crystals that fall from the sky — it is a sophisticated world that changes with every footprint, gust of wind, temperature change and shift of atmospheric pressure. All of these changes create what is known as snow metamorphosis.

You don't have to be a scientist to understand something about snow metamorphosis. We all make observations about snow all the time without even knowing it. Have you ever noticed, for example, how sometimes the snow is just perfect for making a nice round, heavy snowball, whereas other times it refuses to stick together and just falls apart in your gloves? Or how sometimes when you ski the snow is really light and fluffy, but other times feels like you're plowing through wet cement? Here's how to tell what kind of snow is in your backyard:

Grab a magnifying glass and some kind of dark cloth (this could be as simple as the back of your gloves). Take a handful of snow and place it on the cloth, then gently shake it so that the flakes separate and you are able to view them individually. Take a look with your magnifying glass and describe what you see. Does the snowflake have several pointy sides? Does it have rounded edges? Does it look like a miniature pillar or column? Chances are that a snowflake in Summit County has pointy sides, which is classified as a faceted flake. Faceted snow is typically fluffier and produced in drier intercontinental regions such as Colorado and Utah. The other major type of snow, called round snow, is typically formed in wetter regions such as California and Oregon, and tends to create a thicker, more cohesive type of snowpack (ever heard the term “Sierra cement?”).

As the snow piles up on the ground, it continues its metamorphosis as it's affected by wind, melting and re-freezing. To see what we mean, try digging a snow pit. Take a small shovel or other utensil and dig a big trench of snow that goes all the way to the ground. Then use the edge of the shovel to smooth one wall of the trench from top to bottom. Now you can start to identify individual layers of snow, which can be created by high winds, melting and freezing, or new snow. To find the layers, take a thin tool (such as a popsicle stick) and run it down the smooth snow wall from top to bottom. Anytime you feel a difference in the snow (where it starts to get softer or firmer), mark that as a layer, working until you get to the ground. Then grab your magnifying glass and look at the snow grains found at each layer. What do you notice?

You've probably found that the layers contain snow grains of different types and sizes. For example, when water vapor rises from the warmer ground and freezes to faceted snowfall above it, large, loose grains knows as depth hoar can be created. Depth hoar is an indicator for avalanche risk, because it is creates an unstable, loose base for the snow above it which can lead to a large slide.

Snow science is important not only in determining whether the snow in our backyard will make a good snowball, but also in gauging travel safety. The exercise above is very similar to the one used by experts in charge of deciding whether an area is safe for skiing or travel. Remember to always check conditions before heading out into the backcountry. Enjoy the winter!

For more information, please contact Keystone Science School at (970) 468-2098 or visit us on the web,