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Flathead Lake Biological Station hosts Salish Kootenai College STEM Academy students

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Students from the Salish Kootenai College STEM Academy looked in awe at the beating heart of the water flea. Holly Church, the education coordinator at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, had magnified the tiny aquatic creature 100 times using a digital microscope.

Earlier on the calm day in late March, the students boarded the field station’s boat the Jessie B. They traveled to the middle of Flathead Lake to collect water samples, filter out plankton, and record measurements of the water’s clarity. They then returned to the station to discuss sample processing. They also viewed plankton such as diatoms, “algae in glass houses,” whose delicate outer layer created a beautiful mosaic of patterns.   

The first cohort of STEM Academy students, composed of Native junior and seniors from high schools on the Flathead Reservation, visited FLBS so that students could meet STEM professionals and gain a better understanding of local ecology. As Mary Larson, the Academy’s director explained, the trip ... “was a good reminder of how much our students have learned this past year in research science areas. They all wanted their own micropipettes and samples to work on, which indicated that they were feeling very confident about the lab procedures.” 

Funded by a grant through the National Institutes of Health, the STEM Academy’s mission is to increase the representation of Native American students in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), in higher education and beyond. The visit to FLBS complemented the Academy students’ curriculum at SKC. Coursework includes a Science Research class involving bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, which play a fundamental role in soil ecology. The STEM Academy cohort is the first group of high school students to be part of the distinguished “SEA-PHAGES” program, jointly run by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh.  

The Academy students returned to FLBS two days later to complete a DNA lab using the water samples collected previously. Matt Church, an associate professor of aquatic microbial ecology at the University of Montana, provided an overview of the experiment the students would perform, while Holly Church detailed the methods.

At the end of the visit, the students reflected upon what they had learned: “the trip to FLBS was a wonderful opportunity to take what we learned inside the classroom and put it into a slightly different context” commented Savannah Houle, a junior at Polson High School. Landon Shipley, a senior at Polson High, echoed her sentiments. “The visit ... was exciting because we were shown a real-life example of how and why the techniques used by the Science Research class can be applied to organisms on the lake.” In the future, the STEM Academy hopes to build upon its collaboration with FLBS through additional field trips, potential student volunteer projects and coursework.


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