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Castle Rock Middle School teacher Randy Chase jokingly told students he would use the surprise $2,500 he received Tuesday to go on a trip. 

The money will actually stay much closer to home, helping students understand their own backyard. 

Chase, a science teacher, highlights "place-based" education. The approach uses the natural world that students see every day as a laboratory for larger scientific concepts — to "take what we learn in here and get outside instead of always being trapped in the classroom."

His proposal will arm students with guide books, nets, microscopes, binoculars and spotting scopes for use in the field. 

The $2,500 was part of the BNSF Excellence in Education Award, a partnership with the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools. 

Pat Kenney, a science teacher at Ben Steele Middle School, also received the award. His funding will help construct a portable wind tunnel that's a replica of the tunnel used by the Wright Brothers.

At Castle Rock, Chase's classroom is adorned with Montana-centric posters — one for rare wildflower identification here, another for invasive weeds there. 

He used the example of teaching ecosystem complexity not only through whichever examples are in the text book, but also through the sage grouse.

The bird's protection has been controversial throughout the West; it relies on large, unbroken tracts of land, and its decline has been linked to the loss of that habitat. 

Relating larger themes to species in Montana helps lessons sink in.

"It becomes real," Chase said. "(Students) have all this terminology and things we're doing in the classroom and they get to actually put it into practice."

It's not just about using spotting scopes to spy a specific animal; it's about observing that animal's behavior and how it interacts with the rest of its environment. 

Chase isn't the only teacher to use this approach. For example, field trips to the Montana Audubon Center help students learn about how Native American tribes interacted with their environment. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.