Montana State University

Of wetlands and watersheds: MSU students teach local children about water

September 26, 2008 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


Sarah Farris, a third-year elementary education student from Great Falls, teaches Longfellow Elementary School students about wetlands animal adaptation through an exercise she called "beaver dressing". MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A group of education majors from Montana State University recently helped teach some Bozeman elementary school students about the importance of water and wetlands. In the process, the MSU students said they also got to learn a few things themselves.

"It's not every day that you get to trample through wetlands and get your hands dirty, literally, in the soil," said Michele Concienne, a second-year elementary education major from Broomfield, Colo. "It's been awesome because I've learned something from being here, and I've also gotten to teach the kids some things."

"This has been great because when I become a teacher, I'll already have experience teaching in an outdoor setting," said Gina Julian, a third year elementary education major from Spooner, Wisc. "Today I've been able to see what works, and what doesn't, with the kids."

Concienne and Julian were just two of 25 undergraduate MSU students who volunteered their time to be part of Longfellow Elementary School's annual Wetlands Festival. This is the fourth year MSU has collaborated with Longfellow, though the festival itself has been in existence for about twice as long.

At her station, Concienne and her co-teacher taught about wetlands soil. By examining soil taken from different depths below the ground, the two MSU students helped children differentiate between organic and mineral soils based on color and texture.

It was challenging but fun to run the station, Concienne said, adding that she had to adapt the lesson to suit the personalities of each group of students who participated.

At another station, Julian and her students examined cattails with a magnifying glass, learned about the different parts of the plants, inspected cattail habitat, and even made cattail dolls - which was especially popular with the students.

"Oh, yea!" one exclaimed after hearing she was going to get to create a doll.

During the three-day event, approximately 275 students from Longfellow Elementary's kindergarten, first, second, third and fifth grade classes spent time moving through various stations at several wetlands near Bozeman, including the Cherry River Fishing Access site and Langohr Park. Longfellow's fourth grade students are slated to participate in a different wetlands experience in October.

At those stations, students learned about a variety of wetlands-related topics, including insects, soil, water quality, pollution and the effect humans have on the environment.

Festival teachers emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to learning about wetlands, and even include time for art and writing throughout the day, said Randy Walthall, Longfellow Elementary's principal.

By approaching the material through many different lenses, he said, students start to see connections.

He said the festival is important simply because it can help children learn that wetlands are essential to a community.

"Our students live here," Walthall said. "This is their community, their watershed. It's important that our students know why the wetlands are important. It's important that our students understand the wetlands so they can take care of our very special valley."

The festival is also a good opportunity to get young children hooked on science and the outdoors, said Mary Leonard, an education professor at MSU who helped coordinate the MSU student volunteers.

"We need to keep trying to get kids into nature," she said. "To hook them on science is key, and the opportunity to experience a wetlands just might do that. There are some things you just can't learn in a classroom.

"Children are naturally interested in science," she added.

And for MSU students studying to become educators, she said it's also a wonderful opportunity to experience teaching in the outdoors.

"It can be hard for students to get in enough time teaching," Leonard said. "It's almost like no (amount of practice) would ever be enough. So it's great because the students get to prepare the material and then teach it five times throughout the day. It's a very hands-on experience for them."

Mary Leonard, (406) 994-2336 or mleonard@montana.edu