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

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.