By Leah Grunzke

It’s midsummer, and the morning sun rises on a western Montana grassland. White-tailed deer saunter past stalks of late-season wildflowers, tawny and perse. A coyote skirts clumps of arrowleaf balsamroot, long ago set to seed. A mischief of deer mice scurry through patches of Delphinium bicolor, gathering the protein-rich larkspur seed in preparation for the coming season. Overhead, a Red-tailed Hawk circles, watching.

Given a basic understanding of foodweb ecology, the patterns in an ecosystem like this seem pretty straightforward. If the hawk, a top predator, swoops to catch and consume the deer mouse, the seeds that mouse would have gathered will be left on the ground. Fewer seeds lost to predation means more plants next season. Lots of hawks = fewer mice = more plants. Right?

Of course, the dynamics of an intricate food web are much more complex than this simple tale of cause and effect would suggest. We’re lucky in Montana, to have so many amazing natural places to explore how such systems work. Scientists like the University of Montana’s John Maron, who studies grassland ecosystems in the Blackfoot River valley, are eager to know more (see sidebar).

Sidebar: John Maron's Real-World Research. John Maron is an ecologist with the University of Montana’s Division of Biological Sciences. He studies the biology of exotic plant species and food web ecology. In the Blackfoot River valley, he’s looking at how assemblages of top predators like coyotes, hawks, and weasels affect the populations of their herbivore prey (mice, voles and ground squirrels), and how this in turn affects plant communities. Do top predators really have a cascading effect down the food chain? What other factors are involved? By studying large areas over the course of several years, he seeks to understand the long-term impacts of changing predator-prey interactions, not just on individual species, but on the grassland ecosystem as a whole. Maron’s research also includes an outreach component designed to connect the real-world science taking place with education programs in the community. Through these efforts, youth in the Montana Natural History Center’s summer camps and the Flagship After School Program are able to participate in nature-based discovery programs at the Native Plant Garden at Fort Missoula. Kids explore predator-prey interactions, build mini naturalist museums, practice scientific journaling, perform seedling experiments and participate in service learning activities. Unique partnerships like these allow kids to cultivate their inner scientist, learn about Montana’s environment, and have fun exploring the wild world around them.

A logical question might be: Why? Why is it important to know more about how nature works? What are the practical applications of research like this, and who is going to hear about the results? Land managers and ecologists can certainly use data on the effects of biodiversity losses. But is it also enough to say, “We practice science for its own sake. We want to know more because we need to understand our world . . . ” ? Maybe—if we’re helping other people understand their world as well. Part of the joy of science is sharing what you learn. Research projects like Maron’s, being conducted in wild places right here in our backyard, are a great way to teach everybody how nature works . . . and how science is practiced in the real world. The chance to see research taking place, and talk to the scientists behind it, gives people (adults and children alike) a better understanding of the issues that affect the land, wild creatures, and people around us.

Connecting with Kids
We begin the scientific process before we can walk, talk, or understand the experiments we’re conducting.

Pick something up. Hot! Drop it.

Pick up something else. Not hot . . . Put it in your mouth.

Bitter? Spit it out. Sweet? Pick up another one . . .

From earliest childhood we’re constantly forming hypotheses, adjusting variables, interpreting outcomes, modifying our expectations, and tweaking our methods based on our observations. It goes to follow, then, that kids are natural scientists, and can especially benefit from living in a community filled with people and organizations that study our environment. The research being conducted by people in the professional scientific community is often highly complex and filled with advanced concepts, however. The challenge is to find ways to connect kids with the scientific process itself, and help them understand the basic concepts behind how plant and animal communities interact, survive and reproduce.

The best learning experiences often come in the form of play. There is no better way to get intimately acquainted with a meadow than to crawl through it on your belly. Sneaking through tunnels of shady leaves might be the best way to discover a hidden nest, or a sparkling rock, or the source of a spring. And it only takes one unfortunate fort to teach you the difference between a log and a log full of fire ants. Simply being present in wild places, with the freedom to follow any interesting whimsy that comes along, is a chance to be a scientist, exploring patterns and developing creative interpretations of the world. Given the opportunity to observe and discover nature first-hand, kids can also develop a more in-depth understanding of natural processes through organized games and physical activities. It is one thing to listen to someone explain the basics of predator-prey interactions; it is quite another to play the role of a ground squirrel, trying to gather diminishing resources while dodging other children playing the roles of coyotes and badgers.

We can also encourage kids to think scientifically in the way they collect and classify things. As a youngster, I would come home from nearly every outing with pockets full of interesting bits I’d found—wisps of lichen, a rock with a hole in it, a couple of pine cones, a beetle. Starting to learn the names of these scraps was when I really came to understand how they fit into the world. An insect or rock collection is transformed into a science project by labeling and categorizing your specimens—that isn’t just a bug, but a western tiger beetle or a great spangled fritillary. Learning to identify and differentiate between the things you find in nature can mark the beginning of a lifelong treasure hunt to find out more.

Nature is a ready-made science lab and classroom, and kids are born to experiment. Simply by getting kids outside, we are helping them build a connection with advanced concepts like population dynamics, food web ecology, water cycles, nutrient processing, and countless others. By practicing observation, classification, experimentation, creativity, and critical thinking, they gain invaluable experience in the scientific process.

Programs that allow young people to observe the real-world research that’s taking place locally are icing on the cake. The chance to meet and interact with professionals in the scientific community is a chance to better understand ecological processes as well as issues that affect our wild places. With this familiarity, young people will be better equipped to become stewards of the land and informed members of the community as their own lives unfold. There’s inherent value to fostering the inquisitive scientific nature in all children—and who knows, perhaps one day some of them may grow up to do valuable scientific research like John Maron and others.

Leah Grunzke is a botanist and educator, and it is her continuing mission to help people find new avenues of exploring the natural world. She studies backyard wildlife gardening, native plant ecology and pollinator conservation in the wild places of western Montana.


This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Montana Naturalist magazine, and may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written consent of the Montana Natural History Center. ©2013 The Montana Natural History Center.

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