The Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program brings professional naturalists into 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms to teach science and the natural history of western Montana. In this unique program, naturalists work with students once a month throughout the school year providing the opportunity to develop a strong mentor relationship.
Seven months out of the year we work at the school itself, exploring the grounds, conducting experiments, examining natural history specimens from bird wings to mammal skulls, and using microscopes to dissect and examine plants, among other things. During the remaining two months, we go on day-long field trips to local natural areas where students take wildlife hikes with binoculars, capture insects in nets for close examination, and explore local flora and fauna.
The unique structure of the program, the wealth of quality tools, and the top-notch instructors helps VNS meet its goal of engaging and encouraging students’ innate curiosity about the natural world.
The Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program supports the 4th- and 5th-grade science curriculum through the study and exploration of natural history. Students each receive a journal to record observations and scientific illustrations. Through the unique design of the program, MNHC directly provides each student with 19 hours of inquiry-based science instruction during the school year.
Naturalist instructors include Montana Natural History Center staff members and seasonal teaching staff. All naturalist instructors have completed undergraduate study in a related topic and many of them have completed graduate degrees. Instructors begin the program with prior teaching experience and a wealth of natural history knowledge and training.
Foundations, grants, and donations support 90% of the program cost. Schools pay the remaining cost of $220 per classroom.
Naturalists are currently teaching in 72 classrooms in the region, working with 1700 students. VNS is in every public school in Missoula, as well as schools in the Mission, Blackfoot, and Bitterroot valleys:
Read what students and teachers are saying about VNS!
“Thank you for letting us be real naturalists.”
“I loved looking at things in the binoculars!” ~VNS 4th grader
“Thank you, Montana Natural History Center, for giving me a huge interest in birds!”
“Thank you sooo much for teaching us this year! I had a blast! I liked, wait, not liked, loved yesterday’s field trip!” ~VNS 4th grader
“I’m planning on being a naturalist when I’m your age . . . I was wondering, what did it take to be a naturalist? Did someone inspire you? I know that you, my dad and mom, and nature did for me!” ~4th grader, Franklin Elementary
“Many thanks for your great presentations. The kids are still talking about all the things they learned and saw. ” ~Teacher, Lowell Elementary
Meet our staff naturalists:
Bailey loves to study and explore the natural world and especially enjoys doing so with VNS students! Their excitement is a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to further investigate the world around us.
Teaching Naturalist & Volunteer Coordinator
Drew is constantly amazed and humbled by the natural world, and enjoys sharing her explorations with others. She loves helping to create meaningful educational experiences with the students in VNS.
Exploring outdoors in search of whatever natural treasure is there to find–flowers in bloom, bird songs, butterflies, caterpillars, bright orange lichens—these are Christine’s favorite times. And to share them with children enriches those experiences even more!
Front Desk Associate / Naturalist
Alyssa grew up in Livingston, Montana, which afforded her the opportunity to explore local hiking trails and the Yellowstone River. She is excited to connect kids to nature through the VNS program!
Stephanie Laporte Potts
Youth Programs Coordinator
Stephanie loves exploring all the amazing things that Montana’s animals, plants, and fungi can do, how they work together, and where they live. She’s constantly inspired by the things that her VNS students notice when they are outdoors, and she treasures her time learning about nature with them!
Community Programs Coordinator
Christine is passionate about igniting curiosity and care of the outdoors through teaching. She loves the perceptive questions and observations VNS students make in the classroom and the field. Sharing in their joy and discoveries as they turn over rocks or investigate bird beaks is a truly special opportunity.
Kelli Van Noppen
ID Nature Coordinator
Kelli grew up all over the Pacific Northwest. From splashing in the Puget Sound and hanging out with shore crabs to skiing the Cascades of central Oregon and relishing the smell of sagebrush after a lightning storm, she couldn’t help but develop a love of the natural world. She aims to deliver engaging science to a wider audience and work to empower classroom teachers to rediscover the joy in science education.
Retired Science Teacher & Volunteer Naturalist
Montana Natural History Center trips are permitted on the Lolo National Forest (Clause VII.B).