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Fifth-grade students at Target Range School are studying foxes in their neighborhood. They have mapped den locations, taken samples of fox prints and put their findings along with other materials into a fox box, an educational resource trunk that can be shared with children at other schools in the state.
Children at Frenchtown Elementary School are creating interpretive nature trails on school property and collecting plant specimens for reference. They also are working to restore native grasses, in place of knapweed and other noxious plants, on school grounds.
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These hands-on ecology lessons are blooming as a result of a unique program that pairs University biologists, botanists and other scientists with local teachers to the benefit of scientist, educator and student.
The main idea is to get kids involved in doing real ecology in class, says Elaine Caton, a UM postdoctoral fellow in science education. Caton received a two-year National Science Foundation grant to develop the Montana Partners in Ecology program. Besides facilitating individual long-term partnerships between teachers and ecologists, the program offers courses and workshops that bring educators and scientists together to concentrate on the scientific process the methods, not the facts, Caton says which is especially important at the younger grade levels. The programs also acquaint scientists with the techniques and realities of teaching at other than college level.
Kerrys enthusiasm and willingness to do or try anything to bring hands-on science to the classroom was a big asset, Clouse says.
Caton also hooked Clouse up with undergraduate Katie Carlson, a junior in wildlife biology. Motivated by her interest in environmental education, Carlson spent several hours a week during the spring semester with Clouses students, sharing specimens and other materials, taking small groups out into the field, answering questions and guiding the students own efforts to track foxes. She ended up being a real source of inspiration, as well as information, for the kids, Clouse says.
Carlson says she learned much more than she realized about communicating, teaching, and building trust and friendship with students.
Its obvious the students learn so much from outdoors, hands-on schooling, she says.
The only one of its kind in the state, the center offers year-round educational opportunities for teachers, schoolchildren, teens, families and individuals. It serves as a clearinghouse of information for the public and a place for teachers and University experts to network. The center moved last summer from its original office on campus to former U.S. Army buildings at Fort Missoula. The new location has some 80 acres, including 30 acres of riverfront, and is adjacent to UMs new bird research field station.
According to director Lisa Mills, the University granted the center use of its land at the Fort for public education and outreach in the biological sciences, and the center relies heavily on the time and expertise of University faculty and students in the Division of Biological Sciences, the School of Forestry and the Environmental Studies Program, among others. This summer the center will be a hive of activity as multipronged habitat restoration efforts involving the entire community get under way.
A few major efforts include a wetlands project, funded in part by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality; an acre-by-acre restoration of native prairie and prime songbird habitat; a backyard habitat demonstration project, in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation; and a nature adventure playground where children design and create nature-inspired habitats with the help of a local landscape architect.
A complete list of the centers programs would fill pages with descriptions of quarterly teacher in-service training workshops on ecology, school field trips, a free public Riverfest along the banks of the Bitterroot River, the production of Field Notes and Field Notes for Kids (see related story on Page 8) weekly radio programs on KUFM, weeklong summer science courses for children six to 16 years old, and free family nature outings on Mount Jumbo. The center also has training sessions for volunteers who would like to participate in its programs and projects.
Just since weve been out here, weve had about 1,200 kids through, Mills says, Many led by University students teaching them in daylong field experiences.
The center recently held its first public exhibit World of the Red-tailed Hawk brought to Missoula from the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, with funding from UMs biological sciences division. Students from various UM departments acted as docents for the exhibit, creating their own presentations and leading visiting school groups.
Between Partners in Ecology in local schools and its own educational outreach, the Montana Natural History Center is blossoming with collaborations between University and community a place, says Mills, everyone can visit and enjoy interactive, personal experiences with the natural world.
-- Caroline Lupfer Kurtz