(L-R) Dr. Jeff Strickler, Maya Johnsen Livvy Milner, LPHS professor Patty Hamblin and Noelle Miller. “An ice dam broke loose and cleared ice and snow in a wide swath – the students discussed this process on the land,” Rick Graetz explained.

A hot bed for learning

University of Montana assists Lone Peak High School juniors with Yellowstone research

Big Sky is set in one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems and live classrooms within which mysteries of the natural world can be studied. 

As Rick Graetz, University of Montana Geographer, lead for UM’s Crown of the Continent & Greater Yellowstone Initiative and longtime Big Sky homeowner explained – Yellowstone smells of science. It’s a hot bed for action in the natural world– both literally and figuratively. 

Single cell organisms whose ancestors gave the earth its atmosphere; scorching hot thermal pools laden with tiny life forms; 10,000 thermal features – more than half of the thermal features which exist in the world; bird migration patterns; recreation conflict; the reintroduction of wolves and the resulting shift in elk and bison migration. 

“It’s a living, breathing textbook without a page missing,” he said. 

A collaborative effort between the University of Montana, The Yellowstone Club Community Foundation and Big Sky School District has paved the way for what Graetz said is a cutting-edge project for high school student-scholars. 

“Not many schools in Montana, if any, are involved with this type of overall natural system work. Lone Peak High School’s IB degree and CAS program allows students who choose this path in interpreting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to become involved for their junior and senior years,” he said. “And most important, they will be sharing the knowledge gained with the community – service at its best!” 

LPHS juniors Maya Johnsen, Niamh Gale, Noelle Miller, and Livvy Milner get to research aspects of Yellowstone National Park alongside Graetz and professionals from the Forest Service and Park Service. On their own, study and reading coupled with field research will be a part of the curriculum for the ladies this summer and next year for their CAS (creativity, action, service) projects. 

The students delightedly discovered at an after-school meeting on April 3 that their first field research project would begin at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 6: crust skiing 6 miles up the Gallatin from the Big Horn Pass trailhead to see water action and an area where a bison and moose are nearly coexisting. 

They all come from different backgrounds: Johnsen and Gale are Big Sky born and raised, Miller hails from Billings and Milner from Houston, Texas. 

“To me, it’s the epitome of service what they’re going to do – sharing information. Everyone is excited to learn: it’s complex, it’s exciting,” Graetz said. 

He explained that a core belief at the University of Montana is that universities today can no longer be vertical. 

“We have to be horizontal. We have to be out in the communities supporting us. We are expanding our work out in our communities,” he said. “Our address is Missoula but our home is every community in Montana.”

With so much to research with regard to Yellowstone, Graetz said this will be an ongoing, sustainable project – and a great test for getting high school kids involved in research. 

The four ladies involved this year are excited about different aspects of the project: Johnsen, who has been interested in wildlife biology as a career, is most interested in field work; Gale is excited about studying thermal areas; Milner is fascinated by the migratory patterns of animals; Miller is thrilled to delve into the history of Yellowstone to explain “why things are named what they are.” 

It was a collective decision on what they are going to research. The ladies are excited to really get to know Big Sky and this area; to share little-known information; and to see things that not everyone gets to see. 

The Lone Peak Lookout is honored to help with the service aspect of their project. The ladies will be writing stories periodically which will be printed and shared with our readers.

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