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Deep Dive into FLBS: Discovering New Paths to Science Education

by Ian Withrow
| February 1, 2023 12:00 AM

When Morton J. Elrod founded the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) in 1899, one of his first actions was to create a program that would provide educational opportunities during the summer months for college students, educators, and community members alike. He announced the first Bio Station summer session in a bulletin sent throughout the state, as he would continue to do every year during his tenure as Bio Station director.

“The summer school of science and biological station will be opened for the purpose of extending some of the privileges of the university to the public school teachers of the state,” that first bulletin read, “and to such others as choose to do some work in biological lines, and to make a beginning of the study of the life of the state.”

But if you were a K-12 educator, a college student, or an amateur scientist with a willingness to learn, taking a course at FLBS during the turn of the 20th Century was a significant commitment. You often couldn’t get there from here, as the old joke may have had it, and the travel alone would’ve been worthy of a course credit.

Those journeying to the Bio Station from the south needed to first purchase a ticket aboard a Northern Pacific passenger train, ride it to Ravalli, and then purchase a roundtrip stage coach ticket to Polson (which, for you younger generations, is the 1899 equivalent of grabbing an Uber). From Polson, you would grab a seat on a steamboat, which would take you across Flathead Lake to the Bio Station’s original home in Bigfork.

If you were arriving from the north, the travel legs were similar. The Great Northern Railway would get you as far as Kalispell, and then a stage coach would carry you to Demersville—a boomtown that earned the very short-lived moniker of “new Chicago” in 1891. Demersville inevitably lost a popularity war and most of its population to Kalispell by the winter of 1892, but in the summer of 1899 the community still served as a loading port for Flathead Lake’s steamboats. Climb aboard one of these steamers, and you would soon find yourself at the inaugural site of FLBS.

All said and done, whether you were coming from the north or the south, the trip would run you around $10 (the equivalent of around $350 today). It’s true you could save a few dollars by skipping the steamer ride and going around the lake by land, but travel along the east side of the lake was on a rugged, old trail that could take up to three days to negotiate by horse and wagon.

And yet, in spite of all of the logistical and financial hurdles, when the start of that first summer session rolled around, Elrod stood on the shores of Flathead Lake and welcomed the first batch of students to FLBS.

Over a century later, beginning in January of 2024, we will celebrate 125 years of education in the Flathead Watershed. And thanks to our dedicated faculty and educators, collaborative partnerships, and philanthropic support, new pathways are making it easier than ever for students, educators, and community members to learn about freshwater science at FLBS.

Take the FLBS Flathead Lake Aquatic Research Education (FLARE) K-12 program, for example. In 2022, FLARE K-12 interacted with over 2000 K-12 students, engaging over 650 students through field trips hosted at FLBS and reaching an additional 1500 students through classroom visits, after-school programs, and local events such as regional powwows.

FLARE K-12 also had the opportunity to once again partner with educators from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Flathead Lakers, and Montana State Parks to increase invasive mussel awareness through the 2022 Mussel Walks. Utilizing in-class Aquatic Invasive Species curriculum that FLARE K-12 educators helped create and pilot, the Mussel Walks culminated in hands-on learning activities with middle school students from Polson and Bigfork right on the shores of Flathead Lake.

In addition to connecting with western Montana’s youth, FLARE K-12 continues the spirit of Elrod’s original vision by providing opportunities for teachers to learn about current science and the local environment through on-site professional development trainings. One example is the highly popular Flathead Watershed Through The Seasons educator workshop, a year-long training opportunity for K-12 teachers in the Flathead Watershed that offers place-based professional development opportunities for up to twelve local educators each year. Made possible by grants and private funding, FLARE K-12 partners with the Flathead Community of Resource Educators to run this annual teacher workshop.

The FLBS summer academic program, meanwhile, welcomed sixty college students from eighteen universities to take one or more of our nine field-based, experiential ecology courses. Through these courses, students received hands-on learning and real-world research experience alongside world-renowned FLBS scientist

But just like those travel logistics back in 1899, the cost of attendance can be a barrier for many hopeful FLBS students. Fortunately, nearly half of all our 2022 students received scholarships, totaling nearly $70,000, to make their summer education at FLBS possible. These scholarships are funded entirely by our generous Bio Station community through philanthropic gifts, which play a vital role in expanding access to FLBS courses for college students from Montana and across the country.

In addition to our summer classes, in 2022 FLBS hosted a fantastic group of interdisciplinary interns who played an important part in advancing all areas of the Bio Station’s mission. With four interns coming from the University of Montana and another six hailing from universities across the U.S., these philanthropically-funded interns conducted important interdisciplinary work ranging from environmental journalism to aquatic insect ecology that is sure to have a positive impact on FLBS research, monitoring, education, and outreach for years to come.

There are many things that have changed for FLBS since those early days in 1899. The Bio Station has moved from Bigfork to Yellow Bay, for example, and that old rugged wagon trail along the east side of Flathead is now better known as Highway 35. But some things have remained the same. Our passion for pristine water. Our unwavering dedication to this place. Our commitment to both learn and teach in the breathtaking surroundings of the Flathead.

Nearly 125 years later, Elrod’s original motivating desire to unlock and share the many secrets of the natural world continues to draw students and educators of all ages to the Bio Station on the shores of Flathead Lake. And we are all the better for it.

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FLBS students in front of Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park. (photo provided)

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FLBS students from more recent years. (photo provided)

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Klondike steamer drops off students and researchers at Yellow Bay in 1914. (photo provided)