A group of students from the Laurel School District stared into an open trailer filled with sand, Christmas garland, toys and running water.
The water, flowing riverlike from the top of the trailer to the bottom, divided the sand into three separate land masses with the green garland lining the faux river banks.
The display was part of the Northern International Livestock Exposition's agriculture education program. Students traveling to MetraPark get to see NILE displays upclose and learn about Montana's agrarian roots.
Drawing the students' attention to the trailer, David Martin with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, placed a small toy house atop the sand near one of the running streams of water.
Then he pulled up the garland lying nearest to the little house and watched as the sand around it began to wash away.
The 30 students standing around the trailer were riveted by the display.
"What's moving the sand?" Martin asked the students.
"Water!" they all shouted back.
Martin then explained the finer points related to water and soil erosion. Drawing the students further into his discussion he asked them what would happen to the house if the flow of water were to increase.
The students immediately start speculating.
"It'll fall down!" someone shouted out.
"It'll wash way!" another responded.
"And it's nighttime so they're all sleeping!" another added, clearly wrapped up in the hypothetical.
From there, Martin explained that letting nature take its course is preferable to interfering. From there, the students were off to take a tractor ride around the grounds.
These discussions are exactly what Laverne Ivy likes to see. She's the administrator for the Yellowstone Conservation District. Students come out and see livestock upclose and what's grown on Montana farms. And they learn about taking care of the state's natural resources.
"Urban kids come here and learn how important agriculture is," Ivy said. "They've lost touch. So we try and give them a glimpse into it."
It's something for which she feels so strongly that she got the conservation district this year to help pay for transportation to get the students to MetraPark.
Billings School District 2 had indicated they wouldn't be able to send students this year because there was no extra money for busing, Ivy said.
So the conservation district applied for a couple of grants to help cover the costs and then paid for what remained.
The grants allowed them to cover transportation for Laurel and Lockwood school districts as well, said Sheri Kirschenmann, chairwoman of the conservation district's board.
The Yellowstone Conservation District along with the NILE have been sponsoring the agriculture education program for years. Every year, fourth-graders file through MetraPark to see the animals, play in the erosion trailers and get tractor rides.
"I meet kids in their middle 20s and they remember me," Ivy said.
The students from Laurel certainly found the experience memorable.
"It's pretty cool," said Alex Amestoy.
Especially impressive were the baby pigs, said Aleah Paris.
Many of the students remarked on the smell. But mostly they talked about how much they had been looking forward to the field trip. They'd heard about it from their peers in the grades above them.
"It's like a long recess," said Kimber Korell.