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Lewis & Clark National Forest Hosts ‘Hands-On’ Outdoor Science Classrooms

By Phil Sammon

While many of their contemporaries across the country may have had their hands on game controllers this week, 1,700 junior high school students from Great Falls, Montana public schools had their hands on caddisfly and mayfly larvae, crayfish, snails, clams, plus a wide range of plants, seeds, and soil types – all in the name of conservation education and science.

These students all took part in a series of scientific experimentation and exploration stations at the Lewis & Clark National Forest’s Interpretive Center adjacent to Great Falls, along the Lewis & Clark National Trail and the banks of the Missouri River. The 12-day program puts students in touch with nature at six different field investigation sites, all supporting science-based curriculum and classroom preparation.

The program is a partnership with the public school system, which along with the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center staff received a grant from the Department of the Interior. The Center’s location makes it an ideal local setting for students to study, observe, experiment and make scientific conclusions based upon their findings at the six different stations. Forest Service staff, Center volunteers and teachers from the public school system, all pitch in to conduct, monitor and assist the student in their field work.

This exceptional example of conservation education in the Forest Service is a direct reflection on the national program efforts to get more kids outdoors, put more kids in the woods, and inspire students to know, experience, and want to work with the natural resources as part of their lives, to meet the needs of present and future generations.

The students rotated through each of the six stations: water, fire, botany, hydrology, ornithology, and macroinvertebrates. Special demonstrations as well as necessary scientific equipment and supplies at each gave students the right equipment for their work. At the water station, for example, students would assess water quality by testing acidity, dissolved oxygen, and phosphate/nitrate levels. At the ornithology stations, they discovered and noted that migratory birds return at different times, and learned the variance between cavity and woven nest builders.

The students, many of whom had likely never spent more than a couple hours at a time in the outdoors, spent upwards of six hours a day going from station to station. Their enthusiasm and excitement was proof to the educators and Forest Service staff that this Field Investigations Partnership was worth the effort and investment.

Jane Weber, Director of the Interpretive Center explained, “We are excited to have the students experience place-based science within their community.  It’s surprising how few have spent an entire day outdoors in their young lives. As an added benefit, the children monitor our environmental conditions over time.” Tom Moore, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education for Great Falls Public Schools agreed, “I have seen citizen science implemented successfully in other school districts and am pleased to see our educators build this experience into our science curriculum.

Jay Russell, Executive Director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center Foundation, whose organization wrote and received the grant summed the program up this way: “These children will act as our modern-day explorers. Who knows, this experience may inspire a child to explore a future academic pursuit in natural sciences.”

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