On a cold, rainy October morning, fifth-graders from Townsend Elementary School focused on the owl pellets before them, picking them carefully apart.
They found bones — lots of them — hinting at what the owl ate.
“We’re finding claws, too, so we think it’s a mouse — or a bird,” said Cameron Henson.
Or, maybe it’s a vole, or several voles, the group figures, comparing the tiny bones they find with bone charts of different animals of the area, trying to tell what’s a femur or jaw or head, and what animal it might have come from.
Rummaging through owl pellets is just one activity Townsend teachers planned for the group during an overnight field trip to the Montana Learning Center on Canyon Ferry Lake, but it’s among the favorites.
“Because your mom always tells you, don’t play with your poop,” Austin Zeadow said. “She doesn’t know we’re doing this.”
At his table, four boys were rapt by the pellets and the bones within.
“Which one has a little hole in it?” Zeadow asked, holding an apparent piece of tiny skull. It’s a bird, the boys decide, looking at a bone chart — a varied thrush, to be precise.
Townsend fifth-graders have been coming to the center for four years. Kim Gilligan, one of the teachers organizing the trip along with Aubra Lewis and Jenn Anderson, said the overnight trip builds community among the students and teachers, bringing new challenges and making the kids interact with groups outside their circles of best friends.
“We do a campfire and we do a hike, and it helps us build rapport with the kids,” Gilligan said. “There’s more of a mutual respect for everybody.”
Even in the cabins, they don’t necessarily bunk next to their buddies.
“So they’re kind of forced to step outside their box and learn more about each other,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan and others first went to the Montana Learning Center to be trained in STEM-teaching. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
“We originally went up there as teachers and thought, wow, it would be fun to bring our kids,” she said.
This year, 51 students joined nine adults for the trip.
The teachers devised the activities, designed to get the kids collaborating on solving problems. So, the Townsend kids learned about catapults, for example — how they work, what they are made of and why they were made — and then sat down with string, rubber bands, popsicle sticks and other items.
“And they just had to design their own,” Gilligan said, “We just let them loose, and they had to build with teamwork and the materials they had.”
They took hikes along the lake and to Canyon Ferry Dam. Kids on the trip learn why the dam was made how it works, and usually tour its interior. But this year, because of the partial shutdown of the federal government, they didn’t go inside.
The kids designed a miniature golf course — one hole per kid — working with math and area concepts in three dimensions. They made boats out of aluminum foil, trying to see what design allowed the heaviest cargo to be carried without sinking.
There were some livelier activities, such as double ball, a game with Native American origins akin to lacrosse. Teams armed with sticks try to toss the double ball — made at the Helena Indian Alliance and resembling a pair of bean bags connected by a leather sheath — to teammates and eventually through a goal.
Gilligan pointed out to the kids that the game was traditionally played without boundaries, and the game goes on with no particular sidelines.
The kids started out in packs, pounding their sticks at the double ball until someone would get it hooked and toss it. It’s a tricky maneuver, but a few get the hang of scooping and slinging it. After a few minutes, they realize that it makes more sense to spread out on the field and try to get open.
Through it all, everyone stayed warm, because everyone had warm clothes. Gilligan said multiple days of repeating that message to kids paid off.
Back in school, they had a day of reflection, writing and talking about the trip, telling stories and talking about what they learned and how it could apply to future careers. And they spread the word.
“They always talk about it to all the fourth-graders,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan would like to continue the tradition for Townsend fifth-graders. The variable is money.
In past years, the school received some grants to pay for the whole thing. This year, the funding was cobbled together from multiple smaller grants. The school pitched in $500, and each student contributed $10.
The trip costs $45 per person, or almost $3,000.
Olivia Letellier was executive director of the center until Wednesday, when she left for Denmark, where her husband’s work took them.
She’d like to see more school groups take advantage of the facility, a cluster of buildings just past the Canyon Ferry townsite.
The center already holds STEM camps for kids in the summer and numerous training events for adults, particularly for teachers. For some, the setting by the lake is an added advantage, providing opportunities for hiking or boating after the work is done.
Some other schools may come in late winter for outdoor education sessions.
The site is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the structures by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. The agreement between the groups calls for all events there to have an educational component. So, it hosts no weddings or similar parties. Families can gather there if instruction and education is involved.
LeTellier figures there’s still more potential for the site.
“People need to understand what the Montana Learning Center is,” she said.