The peaceful hills of the Eagle Cliffs Ranch were alive with the sounds of delighted shrieks this week as Lockwood children enjoyed a science field trip.
The Lockwood schools first- and second-graders visited the ranch during the first Passport to Nature program. They petted buffalo and visited a homesteader's cabin and learned about bugs and clouds.
Ranch owners Jim and Mary Wempner hosted the children along with their daughter, Mary Kay Rottrup, who is a primary schoolteacher at Lockwood.
The kids had exuberant responses to the hides provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Bob Gibson, from the FWP, held up a bobcat pelt for the kids to identify.
"Sir! Sir! A cheetah would be hard to catch," one little boy cried out.
The kids had better luck identifying the fur of a skunk, which was more identifiable by its white stripe and than the tell-tale odor of a live skunk. That didn't stop little girls from screeching.
Second-grader Kaleb Adams searched the ground for seeds from wheat dropped during an extension agent's presentation on weeds and grasses. Other children for his group scampered the grassy hillside gathering weeds and blossoms from flowering plants.
"I sort of couldn't remember all this stuff," Kaleb said.
Event organizer John Pulasky has helped coordinate the "Back to the Future with Lewis and Clark, Technology Then and Now" event since 2006. The event draws more than 900 middle school student each year to its weeklong offering at Montana State University Billings' College of Technology.
He and others have wanted to expand the program to outlying communities and more children.
The children received "blue books" with pages for each station. When they finished a station, their books were stamped, just like a passport. The books have room for journaling, so the kids can write about what they learned.
Lockwood schools start science curriculum in kindergarten so the program fits into lessons. The information presented to children this week was geared to their age level.
Pulasky's plan is that the program will grow with the students. For example, next year the program could be expanded to extra days structured toward older children.
Pulasky's hope is that over the years, the kids will have opportunities to build a continuing outdoor education.
"By eighth grade, that's quite an environmental education," Pulasky said.
Officials from the ExxonMobil Refinery are interested in partnering with the Passport to Nature program, which could visit the company's wetlands area near the Yellowstone River.
As the program grows, the search for other volunteers will continue, Pulasky said.
"There are a lot of people out there with tremendous knowledge and experience," he said. "It would be fun to get them involved."