Playing In The Dirt To Learn About The Watershed

Digging soil pits in upper clark fork superfund ranch site
October 27, 2015

“This is the best, playing in the dirt. I love it so much!”

We’re firm believers in the value of playing in the dirt. So are the students we work with. In Montana, there’s plenty of opportunity to get your hands dirty in the name of exploration and conservation, especially in the Upper Clark Fork watershed where a massive river cleanup project is underway.

The Clark Fork Coalition centered our fifth annual “Hands on the Ranch” curriculum on investigating the soils that sustain the agricultural communities and ecosystem in the Upper Clark Fork. We also took the opportunity to show participating high school students how they can make a career out of soil science.

Chris Brick CFC demonstrating sampling soil during Hands on Ranch in Upper Clark Fork watershedEach year, the Hands on the Ranch curriculum focuses on different scientific aspects of how century-old mining contamination is impacting the river’s floodplains and adjacent ranchlands. The students also explore how these damaged areas are getting fixed, since Superfund cleanup is happening on ranches throughout their communities. The curriculum connects young adults to this monumental watershed restoration effort by engaging them in hands-on learning projects near their home. Hands on the Ranch provides

1. Real-world experience that gives scientific concepts sticking power and community context for the students.

2. Useable data for a locally-owned family ranch that is next in line for Superfund cleanup of the mining contamination that currently limits their agricultural productivity.

3. More people engaged in keeping our watershed and our landscapes clean, healthy, and whole.

Freshman recording data during Hands on Ranch in Upper Clark Fork watershedThis October, the entire freshman class from Powell County High School joined experts to analyze the soil on a locally-owned cattle ranch in western Montana’s Deer Lodge Valley. Since the ranch lies within the nation’s largest Superfund site, we knew that the soil would be sub-par. The goals were to determine how contaminated it is, how it affects the ecosystem, and how to make it healthy again.

The students brought bucket-loads of enthusiasm and plenty of appreciation for being outdoors. The science experts brought a lifetime of knowledge acquired from working on a variety of soil and watershed projects. By giving her students the tangible experience of collecting field data, the participating earth science teacher, Jessica Anderson, says she’s hopeful they will be encouraged to pursue careers in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math.

Here’s how Hands on the Ranch worked:

Freshman sampling soil during Hands on Ranch in Upper Clark Fork watershed1. Coalition education coordinator, Lily Haines, kicked off the program with a classroom lesson on the function of soils in a healthy watershed. Students quickly pinpointed the primary role of soils in the Upper Clark Fork’s rural communities: growing agricultural crops. They worked in groups to identify key characteristics of soils, such as its texture and ability to hold water. The freshmen then made hypotheses on how soils in their community were faring. Most had experience with “slickens” areas in the floodplain, and knew that unhealthy soils would have a different color, wouldn’t grow plants, and might not support biota like earthworms.

2. The students joined scientists for a field trip to a local ranch in the Superfund site to assess the soil profile and to collect samples from three different shallow test pits. Each pit (dug earlier in the week by landowner Hans Lampert) was about 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide. These pits correlated to areas of high contamination (where slickens had formed and no plants were growing), moderate contamination, and little or no students look at soil horizons in upper clark fork superfund sitecontamination at a site outside of the floodplain.

3. Lily returned to the classrooms to help students analyze the soil samples and determine the pre-cleanup contamination levels in the ranch’s soil. They examined soil samples in the laboratory to compare pH and fertility levels. The results clearly showed the students why plants can’t grow in contaminated areas, and how mining waste is impacting the productivity of the floodplain.

This year’s Hands on the Ranch had a few unique twists that turned the field day into an even cooler event:

  • The students’ earth science teacher, Jessica Anderson, was recently awarded the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year—partly because of her long-standing participation in field learning opportunities like the Hands on the Ranch. She’s a five-year alumni of our program, and say it gets better each year.
  • Digging soil pits in upper clark fork superfund ranch siteLocal landowners Hans and Angel Lampert volunteered their cattle ranch as the field site for soil sampling. The fact that their youngest son participated in the field trip with his earth science class created a deeper connection to the scientific process for all of the freshmen.
  • All students were partnered with a STEM role model on the field trip. The role models were all alumni of Montana universities who started their careers as geological field scientists: Chris Brick, Clark Fork Coalition; Jay Brooker, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Darryl Barton, Clark Fork River Technical Advisory Committee.

As usual, a hefty serving of lunchtime pizza put the perfect cap on a day playing in the dirt. We’re already looking forward to next year’s Hands on the Ranch, where we hope to get even more students knee-deep in soils and streams to see how their watershed is faring.

Learn more about how we connect youth with waterways through hands-on learning opportunities.

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