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Sustainable Missoula: The next generation of environmental problem solvers

An Aspire student records notes and GPS points for interesting landscape features on McCauley Flat. (Cassie Sevigny)

I marched through snow up to my shins as I followed a handful of high school students, their teacher, Elana Selinger, along with Deb Fassnacht and Aissa Wise from the Watershed Education Network (WEN). McCauley Butte rose to our right and the Bitterroot floodplain extended out to our left, scattered with bare cottonwoods and willows. Or so it seemed.

We were on one of many field trips with students from Aspire, an alternative middle and high school. Aspire had just purchased property on McCauley flat in the summer and students jumped right into exploring their outdoor classroom. Part of this exploration included identifying evidence of water to prepare for spring flooding, which would limit their access to the outdoor classroom.

On several outings, the GPS units WEN provided came in handy! WEN showed the students how to mark points on the GPS units and record their observations on datasheets. Many of those trees that at first glance seemed so random, actually followed the damp depressions in the land, indicating the reliable presence of water.

Noting the low points that water will flow to and identifying water-loving plants like willows and cattails gives the students a sense of which areas will experience the most flooding. Through RISE Challenge Big Sky, a middle school group and a high school group from Aspire are working on a plan to address flooding in a way that enables them to continue using their outdoor classroom during flooding.

With spring snowmelt soon approaching, this will very soon become even more real for them! In addition to Aspire, several other schools in Missoula and the Flathead valley are participating in the RISE Challenge Big Sky.

The RISE Challenge is a national program by Earth Force, FEMA, and the ASFPM Foundation that gets students thinking about their community’s resilience to environmental hazards and involves them in developing solutions. In Montana, the RISE Challenge Big Sky is hosted by Brightways Learning in partnership with the Watershed Education Network.

Students identify an environmental issue in their community – such as flooding or fires, in Montana – and investigate possible effects and solutions. They present their action plan proposals this March, all of which are eligible for funding to help with implementation. In addition, the top 5 proposals at the presentation summit will receive prize money.

Accompanying the middle school and high school students from Aspire reinforced the value of outdoor education for me. Wandering around a large tract of land, learning through observation, and getting to use science tools like GPS units would have been my favorite thing as a kid! They found debris in trees (possible evidence of the high-water line), a pile of turkey feathers (likely a coyote’s lunch), a beaver lodge, and more.

The RISE Challenge Big Sky provided some structure and a goal for that observation process. Developing a solution to flooding in their outdoor classroom gives the students a sense of ownership and control over their education and community. This is something young students do not often experience in school.

Through the RISE Challenge Big Sky, Montana youth have an opportunity to identify an issue that matters to them and solve it according to their own needs and interests. Practicing this skill is immensely valuable for adapting to changes in our environment as a result of climate change or unexpected natural disasters. Programs like the RISE Challenge help prepare the next generation of problem-solvers with real world, hands-on experience. WEN is proud to facilitate that.

Cassie Sevigny is the Communications Coordinator, Watershed Education Network.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

There will be lots of (COVID-safe) events and ideas to celebrate Earth day, Week and Month – we’ll post on this calendar and stay tuned!

April 2, 5:30pm. Electric Vehicle Car Show and Rally. Adventure Cycling Parking Lot (150 E. Pine, downtown). Join Electric Vehicle owners to learn more about the joys and benefits of EVs. At 6:30 the EV owners will drive up and down Higgins. More details here.

April 6, 12 – 1pm. The First Step to Fixing Climate Change with scientist and climate communicator extraordinaire Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. Families for a Livable Climate free virtual event and registration is required. Don’t miss this one!

Now through April. Montana Legislature is in session. Get the awesome “How to be Involved Guide” from Montana Free Press. To follow efforts for clean energy, climate, conservation and sustainability, consider connecting with (and getting the low down and action alerts from):

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17.

Through April 22. Thursdays, 7pm. Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series. In 2020, this lecture series celebrated 50 years of Earth Day by focusing on Missoula’s sustainability efforts & featuring 60 speakers. In 2021 many of those speakers will return to give updates on how their programs have adapted to the crises we face. Check out this year’s schedule HERE. 2020 recordings are available HERE.

Through June 19 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.