Getting students outside is an important part of education, according to the members of the Prickly Pear Land Trust.
Recently, the land trust partnered with AmeriCorps VISTA and Helena Public Schools' Project for Alternative Learning to get more high school students outside and help them learn about conservation and the natural world.
"This is a way for the land trust to expand our education program and give back to the community," said PPLT project associate Travis Vincent. "Getting kids outside to learn about the environment and conservation is great. It better engages them and teaches them more about land trusts and conservation easements than a classroom would."
Throughout the month of May, PAL students went on six two-hour lessons organized by Callie Schultz, an AmeriCorps volunteer. The lessons took students to Ten Mile Creek, Seven Mile Creek and the South Hills. They learned about how humans may contribute to an unhealthy stream along with stream restoration, invasive species, habitat loss, private land conservation and history of Native American culture.
"It's important for PPLT to express the importance of conservation to our future stakeholders," said Mary Hollow, PPLT executive director. "The Seven Mile Creek restoration is a great outdoor classroom experience."
Hollow said PPLT wanted to expand to different sects of the public. PAL represents a group of students who might have fewer opportunities to get outside and learn, she said. The partnership with AmeriCorps helped PPLT jump-start the project and hold their first set of outdoor classrooms this spring.
Tim Garrett, a teacher at PAL, said he was approached by Vincent with ideas on how they could work together. PAL works in a way that it allows for more flexibility in the ways students learn. He teamed with fellow teacher Ryan Cooney on the project with the idea that it was a perfect opportunity to reengage their students into their education and community, one of PAL's goals.
Garrett praised Vincent and Schultz, who provided the chance for PAL students to interact with biologists, historians, legal experts and other conservation volunteers.
"As a big fan and supporter of public lands, I was giddy when Tim told me that PPLT was interested in working with us," Cooney said. "Getting kids involved and fostering passion for public lands is key to preserving and conserving our natural treasures. In three short weeks, the students clearly developed an affinity for our trails, parks and local ecosystems."
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Cooney felt the feedback from his students was incredibly positive. This echoed Garrett, who said the students enjoyed collecting macroinvertebrates, learning about noxious weeds and exploring Native American artifacts. Cooney said he hopes the program will continue and be made available to students across the district.
Tyzer Rushford, a PAL senior, said he first took the class because of the opportunity for field trips. What he didn't expect is how much he would learn. He expressed appreciation for PPLT and intends to volunteer for the organization in the future.
"I took the class because I like the outside and wanted to learn about noxious weeds, ecology and PPLT," said Eddie Temple, a junior. "I enjoyed all of the class but especially when we were in the water collecting macroinvertebrates and learning about the ecosystem of the riparian environment."
Getting a chance to go outside and learn more about PPLT is a common thread among the students who took the class. Many walked away with a better appreciation for PPLT and the human impact on the natural world.
Dennis Milburn, a landowner and PPLT board member, played a major role in the Native American history lesson. Since 2003, Milburn and a number of archaeologists have found dozens of artifacts on his 260-acre property. He took the students out on the land and showed them teepee circles and other unique formations identified by archaeologists. He also showed off the large collection of artifacts found on the property in the past decade.
"We view everything out here through our eyes and experience," Milburn said. "It is hard to imagine how others were living out here in negative-40-degree weather inside a teepee."
Milburn said he jumped at the opportunity to show this to the students. "I'm all for education," Milburn said. Previously he has worked with Carroll College in identifying many of the artifacts on the property.
This is just the beginning of the program, according to Vincent. He said they are currently working on having another curriculum block in the fall. PPLT and AmeriCorps currently have many ideas on how they can further expand the program.
They hope the program will give future stakeholders a better understanding of the natural world.