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Lessons & Units

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.


by Jonas Ramoth and Sidney Stephens

Activity Series 3 - Topography

"The west wind is a poor artist but the east wind does beautiful work. "
Jonas Ramoth

Background Jonas Ramoth says that in Selawik, the west wind is a poor artist while the east wind does beautiful work. This refers to the fact that the west wind creates messy, rough, uneven piles of snow while the east wind leaves long, straight drifts of snow about 10 - 12" wide in flat country. Part of the explanation for this is local topography. (Prevailing global wind patterns are also significant. See Activity Series 5 - Global Winds). Selawik is located in a valley on low-lying tundra, at the base of the Kobuk River Valley to the east and facing Selawik Lake and Kotzebue Sound to the west. The valley acts as a funnel for prevailing East winds which create long, straight drifts of snow in the winter, while the broad winds generated from the west are interrupted by minor hillocks or trees. This frictional contact re-routes the wind creating characteristic rough, uneven drifts.

Activity 3a



1-meter stick and clipboard per pair of students, graph paper

Preparation Select a building that demonstrates a variety of drift patterns due both to the prevailing winds and frictional contact with obstacles. A square building is the best because it creates the most predictable wind eddies. The best grounds are flat and bare, extending for a sizable distance in all directions from the building. Try to avoid areas that have been shoveled or cleared mechanically.




1. Jonas has said and you have observed that the west wind is a poor artist but that east wind does beautiful work. What does he mean by this? Have you noticed the two kinds of drift patterns he describes? Where? What are your ideas about why this might be so? (EA - prior knowledge)

Explore 2. In pairs, station students equally spaced around the perimeter of the building. Have them check and record the snow dept right next to the building by inserting a meter sick straight down into the snow until it hits the ground. The next reading should be taken two feet further from the building, on an imaginary line that is perpendicular to the building. If possible, have them take as many as 15 readings in this fashion.

3. Upon return to class, have each team construct a graph of their snow bank as it would appear in profile - as if they sliced it in half and looked at if from the side. To make later comparisons easier, establish a universal scale for these graphs. (Note - students could collect data right on the graph paper, creating this profile as they measure drift depth and save this transfer step)

4. Tape the graphs on the classroom wall surrounding a diagram of the building that is properly oriented for compass directions.

5. Combine teams into discussion groups of 4 students each. A team for one side of the building might be combined with a team from another side. Have them discuss their two graphs and try to account for the differences between them. Each group should prepare a list of differences in the drifting pattern (depth, length etc.) between the two sides of the building, and try to account for these differences to the class. When they give reasons for the differences, listen for reference to wind, wind direction, wind speed, obstacles, and so forth.

Activity 3b



Per team: 2-ft wooden stick, 2 large pieces of poster board, tissue paper, tape, scissors, electric fan, 4 bricks




1. If your students already understand that the mountains to the east of Selawik (and sometimes buildings) act as a funnel, provide them with the materials and challenge them to demonstrate the funnel effect. If not, you might guide them through the process below:

Cut the tissue paper into strips 1/2 inch wide and 1 ft long. Tape the strips by their ends to one end of the wooden stick.

Place the fan on a table and switch on to its low setting to make a light breeze. Hold the stick, with the strips at the top, a short way from the fan. How high does the breeze blow the strips?

Now make a narrowing valley from the poster board and the bricks, with the fan at the wide end and the stick near the narrow end. Turn on the fan to the same setting as before.

Play with the width and length of valley to see if it changes wind speed

Generalize 3. How strong was the breeze without the poster board? With the poster board? How did the shape of the "valley" influence wind speed? What are your ideas about why this might be so? (A valley or canyon acts as a funnel to wind blowing along it. Wind speed increases and air pressure may fall.)
4. Challenge students to construct a model of the building they surveyed for snow drifts and use the fan/wind strips to gauge the wind speed at different points.

Activity 3c



Per team, a baking pan 2-6" deep, water, modeling clay to create obstacles above the surface of the water, buoyant spice powder




1.Stick towers of clay along one side of the dish to represent buildings, a group of large trees or hillocks. Pour enough water into the dish to cover the bottom at least an inch.

2. Sprinkle spice powder at one end of the dish, away from the obstacles. Tilt the tray and watch the powder to see how the "wind" moves around obstacles. (Obstacles deflect winds making complicated patterns as the air eddies around them. As wind is deflected, it also slows, mainly because of friction between the air and the surfaces it passes.)

Activity 3d



Per group: 8 x 2in cardboard, modeling clay, matches, small candle, saucer




1. Place candle on saucer, using a blob of modeling clay to support it. Light the candle.

2. Hold the cardboard "building" upright 4 inches from the candle. Blow hard directly at the building. Behind the shelter do you think the wind will blow toward the building or away from it? Watch what happens to the flame.

3. What are your ideas about why this might be so? (When wind blows at right angles to a building, the air will form eddies around the building and the flame will lean, temporarily towards the cardboard).


4. Tell students that they have been out ice fishing on Selawik Lake but that visibility has decreased and they have lost their orientation to the hills and town. Ask them how they might use their knowledge of drift patterns to find their way home.

5. Provide students with a diagram of a river with eddies and ask them to explain the formation of eddies based on their study of wind.

6. Ask students to bring in scrap materials from home (bottles, pieces of wood etc) and challenge them to create a specific kind of snow drift based on their understanding of the effects of wind on snow. You might ask them to create a very long or wide or deep drift or a drift that digs a very deep hole n the snow.

7. Select several sites around town, take field trip to each of them, and ask students to described how /why the chosen drifts were formed.



Section I - Observing Locally

Section II - Understanding Wind

Section III - Connecting Globally

Appendix A - Selawik Weather Information from Jonas Ramoth

Appendix B - Assessment

Appendix C - Weather Resource List

Appendix D - Interdisciplinary Integration



Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village  


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Last modified August 18, 2006