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Montana State University > College of Letters and Science > Learning in the Last Best Place

Learning in the Last Best Place

November 15, 2011 -- By Jody Sanford, College of Letters & Science
Students study a thermal feature in Yellowstone National Park in CHMY 591, "Examing Life in Extreme Environments." Photo by MSSE Program
BIOL 523 students in the field in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by MSSE Program
GEO 521 students in the field at Makoshika State Park. Photo by MSSE Program

Bozeman has been on a lot of “Top 10” or “Best Places” lists in recent years. It seems that the town is now “on the map” and is being recognized for the many great things it has to offer—a high quality of life, excellent recreational opportunities, and a great place to retire or raise a family. For example, in 2009 National Geographic Adventure magazine identified Bozeman as the best town to raise a family. In 2010, U.S. News & World Report included Bozeman on its list of 10 best affordable mountain towns for retirement. Also in 2010, Bozeman was featured on Outside magazine’s “Best Towns” list in the category of “Best Skiing in the West.”

Montana State University is also increasingly on the map because of its wide-range of excellent, and often unique, learning and research opportunities, many of which are found in the College of Letters and Science. Several of these programs are highlighted in this issue of Confluence, including thermal biology and astrobiology in Yellowstone National Park (pages 4-5), archaeology field work (see sidebar and pages 6-7), fisheries research (pages 8-9), paleontology in Eastern Montana and snow science in our many snowy mountains (pages 12-13). Our Native American Studies program is also highlighted for the opportunities it provides students to work in native communities in the region (pages 10-11).

One of the most exciting programs at MSU is the Master of Science in Science Education (MSSE), which includes many summer courses with field components uniquely available in Montana. The College of Letters and Science sponsors the MSSE program (along with the College of Agriculture, the College of Education, Health and Human Development and the Graduate School) and many courses are taught by faculty from our departments, including: ecology, chemistry and biochemistry, microbiology, earth sciences, mathematical sciences and physics. Although MSSE—which is geared towards K-12 science educators—is primarily taught online, students are required to complete one Montana-based two-credit lab or field course. Many, if not most, MSSE students end up taking several field courses either in a single summer or over multiple summers during their time in the program.

In BIOL 523 “Wildlife Ecology of the Northern Rocky Mountains,” students are introduced to the ecology of the Rocky Mountains as showcased within Yellowstone National Park, one of the few intact wild ecosystems in the lower 48 states. This course, which is taught by David Willey, assistant research professor in the Department of Ecology, is largely taught in the field. Four days are spent in Yellowstone applying principles and techniques for studying wildlife populations.

Professor James Schmitt and Associate Research Professor Frankie Jackson, Department of Earth Sciences, teach GEO 521 “Dinosaur Paleontology of Hell Creek Formation,” which provides an introduction to the geology and dinosaur paleontology of eastern Montana. The course features daily hikes in Makoshika State Park where students get hands-on experience in fossil collection and preparation, and interpreting sedimentary environments and taphonomy.

In BIOL 591 “Land Use Issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” students learn about the legal and political basis for scientific management of natural resources on public and private lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Jerry Johnson, professor and department head in the Department of Political Science, teaches the course and leads students on daily outings to visit landscapes around Bozeman and in the nearby communities of Big Sky and Butte. Students examine issues such as the recovery of endangered species, rural sprawl and wildfire suppression policies.

“The unique habitats, landscapes, natural features and cultural resources found in Montana provide a tremendous outdoor classroom and laboratory for many of the disciplines in our college,” said Paula Lutz, Dean of the College of Letters and Science. “Faculty and students alike are able to get outside and pursue some really cool projects in the field.”