Voice of the River

Big Sky Fourth Grade Students Explore Environmental Change

“If the water is not clear, nobody will want to play, raft, or fish the river…If nobody wants to play in the river, the economy will go down…because a lot of our money comes from sports in the river,” a fourth-grade student stated during a mock engineering summit at Ophir Elementary School. The Solutions Matter Summit was the culmination of a six-week unit of inquiry by the fourth-grade class exploring local and global environmental change.

Ophir educators, Jeremy Harder and Renee Zimmerman, designed the unit to meet International Baccalaureate and Next Generation Science Standards through hands-on investigation of the rivers, rocks, and landscapes of Big Sky, MT and beyond. Gallatin River Task Force staffers, Kristin Gardner and Stephanie Lynn, joined the team to facilitate curriculum focused on watershed themes.

The river lessons began on a snowy September day along Beaver and Porcupine Creeks, small tributaries of the Gallatin River near Ophir Elementary School. Beaver and Porcupine Creeks flow through similar landscapes but tell very different stories. Porcupine Creek meanders through dense willows in the Custer Gallatin National Forest while Beaver Creek spills out of a culvert and crosses a heavily used trail with degraded streamside vegetation.

Two tributaries enter the Gallatin River near the Big Sky School District: Beaver Creek (west) and Porcupine Creek (east).

Students measure water quality on a snowy day.

Through their field inquiry, students identified agents of erosion and evidence of landscape change on an interpretive hike along Porcupine Creek. Then, they returned to Beaver Creek to measure water quality, turbidity, and sediment size distribution on the streambed. The perceptive youngsters noticed changes in stream velocity and evidence of erosion in Beaver Creek. They measured excess sand, mud, and clay in the popular stream crossing, while the sediment upstream of the crossing was larger and more diverse.

Two weeks later the fourth-grade class visited the West Fork Restoration Project, an effort to improve streamside vegetation along the West Fork of the Gallatin River. The class toured the project and inventoried stream insects living in the West Fork. The kiddos found stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies and agreed that the West Fork seemed to be a good place to live for both insects and trout.

Talking data tables in the shadow of Lone Peak.

To complete the unit, the class had the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge by designing solutions to a variety of environmental problems including:

  • A local tributary (stream or creek that enters the larger river) has a natural crossing that is used by humans on foot, bikes, motorcycles, and horses. What can we do?
  • A local energy company wants to build a dam on the river you fish every day for a much-needed source of energy for the people of your town. Save the fish!
  • A recent study shows that there is pollution in the form of garbage and microplastics in your town’s waterway. Find a way to fix this!

The outside of the box ideas generated by the future river stewards provided complex solutions to address the needs of humans and the environment. Watch the youngster’s presentations here!

PC: Renee Zimmerman and Jeremy Harder


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