FLBS Educator Takes AIS Curriculum Online

FLBS Educator Takes AIS Curriculum Online

Flathead Lake Biological Station Educator Adapts Aquatic Invasive Species Curriculum for At-Home Students

For middle school students and educators in the Flathead Watershed, spring is traditionally a time for aquatic invasive species (AIS) education and field trips for middle school students and teachers in the Flathead Watershed. But with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, educators from the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS), the Flathead Lakers, and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are coming up with new and innovative ways to offer AIS education through at-home learning opportunities.

With K-12 students now learning from home, for example, FLBS Flathead Lake Aquatic Research and Education (FLARE) K-12 Educator Holly Church has adapted the recently developed “Be AIS Aware” curriculum for at-home learning. 

Originally designed for in-class learning, the “Be AIS Aware” is supported by FLBS, the Flathead Lakers, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The curriculum introduces students to aquatic invasive species (AIS) that pose significant threat to Montana’s freshwater ecosystems.


Students from Somers Middle School engage in the "Be AIS Aware" curriculum in their classroom in the days leading up to the 2019 Mussel Walks.


“When we first started putting the unit together, we decided to target middle schools specifically so that the students can begin to develop a mindset of AIS awareness earlier in their academic career,” said FLBS FLARE K-12 Educator Holly Church, a driving force behind the creation and implementation of the “Be AIS Aware” curriculum. “The ultimate goal is to create a culture of AIS awareness and prevention that builds over time throughout the community. We want the youth of Montana to take an active role in AIS prevention and that starts with learning how to recognize AIS threats and understand what’s needed to stop their spread.”

The end of the unit typically culminates in an annual CSKT Mussel Walks, an expansive exercise which has become a collaborative effort between the Flathead Lakers, FLBS, CSKT, Montana State Parks, and Whitefish Lake Institute.

During the Mussel Walks, students put their classroom knowledge to the test as they rotate through four activities and then walk along the shoreline to search for invasive mussels and to pick up litter. The goal is for the students to become empowered with the knowledge of how to protect their local lakes, ponds, wetlands, rivers, and streams from invasive mussels and to take an active role in AIS prevention.


FLBS FLARE K-12 Educator Holly Church speaks to students from Whitefish Middle School during the 2019 Mussel Walks at Whitefish Lake.


Over 400 students from five middle schools participated in the 2019 Mussel Walks, examining four shoreline locations around Flathead Lake and two locations at Whitefish Lake.

At the start of this year, momentum behind the “Be AIS Aware” Unit and CSKT Mussel Walks was as strong as ever. Educators from the Bio Station and the Flathead Lakers spent the fall assembling two AIS teaching trunks, which they began sharing with middle school educators in the Flathead area this winter before increasing the rollout to middle schools throughout the state. 

In January, 22 students in Swan River Middle School had experienced the “Be AIS Aware” curriculum in the classroom. By March, five schools were scheduled to use the AIS teaching trunks and approximately 370 students were scheduled to participate in the CSKT Mussel Walks this spring.

But the arrival of the coronavirus put a hold on all the best-laid plans for the AIS curriculum, and if trends continue it seems increasingly likely that the 2020 Mussel Walks will not take place as planned this spring.

Still, as schools began to transition to at-home learning, Church recognized an opportunity to still distribute the “Be AIS Aware” curriculum to middle school students and teachers. She went to work adjusting the material for at-home learning environments. Now, parents and educators can utilize the materials provided on the FLARE K-12 Teaching Materials website to engage “Be AIS Aware” while educating students at home. These learning materials include research packets, worksheets, and activities.


The new at-home learning "Be AIS Aware" curriculum is now online on the Bio Station's FLARE K-12 Teaching Materials website.


“I originally approached teachers at Polson Middle School with the idea of modifying the lessons for remote learning,” said Church. “Since they were already planning to use the AIS curriculum in May, they were immediately interested in having the students complete the lessons at home. Understanding that many teachers throughout the region have students with and without internet access, I realized that I needed to act fast and provide a way for all students to have access to the materials.”

For students without internet access at home, Church created materials and research packets that can be printed by educators and easily assembled in hard-copy form.

Additionally, in the event that the CSKT Mussel Walks are cancelled or postponed, preparations are being made to determine the best way to deliver interactive and hands-on learning opportunities that would connect students with local freshwater ecosystems. For example, the Flathead Lakers have already created a Flathead Lake Mussel Walk Challenge that can be completed by students and community members (with social distance of course) once the Shelter-in-Place order lifts. In addition, the FLBS education team will be developing remote mussel walk and virtual field trip activities that can be completed at home.

There’s no denying that the rise of the coronavirus pandemic has had an incredible impact on K-12 education, among so many other things. However, it is highly apparent that in this unprecedented era of shelter-in-place, there are those who remain dedicated to our future, and invested in our lakes.

For more information regarding AIS education and outreach developments and opportunities in the Flathead Watershed, visit the Flathead Lake Biological Station website at flbs.umt.edu/newflbs/outreach/k-12-education, or the Flathead Lakers website at flatheadlakers.org.