Visiting Naturalist in the Schools

collage of visiting naturalist in the schools field trip photos - kids outside looking at trees, writing in journals, drawing pictures of trees, looking through microscopes

The Visiting Naturalist in the Schools Program connects professional naturalists with fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in western Montana. The program includes:

  • Monthly class visits in September, November, December, January, February, March, and April
  • Full-day field trips at a local natural area in October and May
  • Journals for each student in the program to record observations, practice science journaling, and develop reading and writing skills
  • Ongoing science inquiry and encouragement of the students’ natural curiosity about the natural world
  • 19 hours of direct instruction by a professional MNHC staff Naturalist
  • Curriculum aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards that also contributes to curriculum goals in literacy, critical thinking, and communication: see an overview here.

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 as well. Instructors begin the program with prior teaching experience and a wealth of natural history knowledge and training.

Program Cost
Foundations, grants, and donations support 90% of the program cost. Schools pay the remaining cost.

Interested in participating in the program? Fill out the online registration form here.

VNS Evaluation Report
In 2018 we had Cedar Lake Research Group LLC perform a formal evaluation of the VNS program.

front cover of the 2018 Visiting Naturalist in the Schools evaluation report, with pictures of children outside on field trips

Click here for the full report (122 pages) and here for the summary (10 pages).

2023-2024 Program
Naturalists are currently teaching in 70 classrooms in the region, working with 1636 students. VNS is in most of the schools in Missoula, as well as schools in the Mission, Blackfoot, and Bitterroot valleys:


Watch this video to learn more about our VNS program and see it in action!

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:

Kate Folkman (she/her)

Kate Folkman (she/her)

Teaching Naturalist

Kate spent her childhood outside skiing, swimming in the lakes of Minnesota, and camping with her family throughout the Western U.S. Kate is looking forward to continuing to explore and be curious about the natural world with her VNS students!
Jenah Mead (she/her)

Jenah Mead (she/her)

Teaching Naturalist

Jenah’s favorite things in nature are birds, lichens, and the VNS students she gets to explore with every year. She is constantly inspired by their observations and infinite curiosity. When she grows up, she wants to be just like them.

Andrea Panagakis (she/her)

Andrea Panagakis (she/her)

School Programs Manager

Andrea’s life has always revolved around science and nature. She is excited to share her commitment to connecting people with nature by cultivating new generations of environmental stewards through experiential, place-based education.

Emma Swartz (she/her)

Emma Swartz (she/her)

Teaching Naturalist

Emma grew up connecting with nature on bikes, skis, and feet. She’s excited to slow down and explore the natural world with her students through experiential learning and lots of smiles.
Erin Vielbig (she/her)

Erin Vielbig (she/her)

Teaching Naturalist

Growing up, Erin found herself exploring the wilderness any chance she got. She feels most at peace when sharing her love for the outdoors and looks forward to learning more about the natural world with her VNS students.

Montana Natural History Center trips are permitted on the Lolo National Forest (Clause VII.B).

Montana Natural History Center is an equal opportunity service provider.