Rural Montana Students Become Citizen-Scientists through Place-Based Learning

Teacher Judy Boyle stands at a cooler containing water and small fish. She is holding a net and handing out fish two students standing at the cooler. In the background other students are releasing their fish into a lake.Six Montana students are warmed by a campfire with their teacher, Judy Boyle, and some of their parents who have come along on the ‘field study trip.’ The students, ranging from 1st to 7th grade, journal about the symbiotic relationships and geothermal features they observed and recorded during the day. Place-based education is one way Boyle enables her students to engage with science, their natural environment and community.

The Advantages of Being a Small, Rural School

Life in Divide, Montana, may look a little different from the norm in more populated areas. The two-room schoolhouse serves the six students enrolled at Divide Public School. On their commute to school, the Divide students and their teacher could be held up by a different kind of traffic – a herd of elk.

A student is watering newly-sprouted vegetables in a garden inside a school room. A desk and blackboard are in the background.

Divide student Cameron Breitzman waters vegetables. The students are investigating whether or not seed tape works and if they can grow watermelons in Montana (and inside!).

Boyle said she has the same students each year from kindergarten through 8th  grade, so she is forced to find new material to keep her students engaged.

Heidi Kessler, parent of former and current Divide students, says because of the personal relationships Boyle develops with her students, she’s able to determine their strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, which she uses to keep them challenged.

Hands-on learning is a means for Boyle to maintain exciting content.

“Place-based learning is taking your students out in the real world,” Boyle said. “It’s the real-world application of what they’re doing in school.”

Being a rural school without a cafeteria or bus program has its benefits. Boyle says there are fewer restrictions for her to take her students out of the classroom and into their environment.

Boyle trained in place-based learning through several programs, specifically for lessons on watersheds. The Big Hole River is frequented by the Divide students, who collect water quality data as part of the research they perform outside of the classroom.

Boyle says the study of watersheds and their field study trips allow the students to learn about virtually every type of science – such as hydrology, geology and biology.

Divide Students’ Community Involvement and Recognition

In 2010 and 2011, the students conducted a research study on the impact of the reconstruction of the Divide Diversion Dam. Their research consisted of surveys sent to community members, interviews with the project’s head engineer and other local environmental actors as well as a series of water quality tests.

“The Big Hole Watershed Committee invited the students to their community meeting, and each student, from kindergarten to 8th grade, presented their findings to the committee,” Boyle said.

A student is feeding very small fish in an aquarium in a classroom. A blackboard is in the background.

Student Keegan Breitzman feeds the fish the students are raising inside their school.

At the committee meeting in the summer of 2011, the students received support from people who were involved in their study – ranchers, parents and community members. The Big Hole Watershed Committee awarded the students $100, which they used to purchase the lab coats they wear while conducting water quality tests.

Boyle said presenting the study to the committee had a great impact on the students, allowing them to have pride in their work and identify as citizen-scientists.

The Divide students’ work on the diversion dam project so impressed the staff with the Clark Fork Watershed Educational Program they wrote letters of recommendation for students to attend Montana State University’s Water Summit, according to Kessler. Two 7th graders and one 6th grader from Divide made history in 2011 when they were accepted into Montana Water Summit for junior high and high school students. The 6th grader, Winchester Kessler, was the youngest student to ever attend the summit.

At the water summit, the students studied the water system at the Yellowstone National Park. They broke off into groups with each group completing its own research task.

“She loved it,” Heidi, Winchester’s mother, said about her daughter’s experience at the Montana Water Summit. “She’s one of those life-long learners; she gets excited about learning.”

From being the youngest student to ever attend the Montana Water Summit to bringing home awards from three science fairs, Heidi said Winchester thrived at Divide School because each day was a new project and experience. Seven years after attending the summit, Winchester is a Presidential Scholar at Montana Tech majoring in mechanical engineering.

Today’s Divide students continue to monitor water quality at Big Hole River, but they also pursue new projects, such as website design and coding.

Taking Science Home and Bringing Science In

Boyle says she knows she’s had an impact when her students take the science they learn at school home with them.

Boyle’s pride in her students’ desire to learn was evident in her voice when she said her students would conduct water quality tests on their own and then come to school to report their findings.

The students at Divide are surrounded by science, even in the classroom. Students study plants using growing tables and rainbow trout they hatch and raise right in their classroom.

“My window sills are covered with things that parents, community members and kids bring in because they know we are studying them,” Boyle said. “We’ve got elk antlers, various rocks and samples of wood. You name it, we have it.”

“It’s science that’s actually bringing a lot of my students to school.” Boyle said. “They get so excited discovering things on their own or engineering things on their own. They’ve become great students because they see worth in what they are learning.”


Savanna Barksdale is an intern from Texas Tech University at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Photo at the top: Divide students release fish into Bozeman Pond last year.

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Item Date: 
02/28/2018 - 3:20pm