FREEFLOW club provides unconventional learning

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At Whitefish High School the words environmental club do not begin to describe the extensive work and research of FREEFLOW.

FREEFLOW stands for Flathead River Education Effort for Focused Learning in Our Watershed. The unique acronym is the name of a multifaceted field science club at Whitefish High School, one that allows students to express themselves in different ways and provides an unconventional way of learning about the environment and the world. The club provides a platform for students who have an interest in the outdoors to immerse themselves in the wild landscapes of the west and learn about current natural resource related issues first hand. Teachers and administrators at Whitefish High School see the value in these authentic experiences for students and have been willing to create unique opportunities for students to take on leadership roles in conducting studies in the outdoor environment and in presenting work to public audiences.

In addition to a focus on field science, FREEFLOW outings enable students to connect in unexpected ways and in a wide array of outdoor environments, whether it be an impromptu snowball fight on top of Lolo Pass while collecting data on forest canopy density or cooking dinner for a group of 25 people during a field ecology trip rafting down the Green River in Utah. FREEFLOW outings bring students together and help form lasting friendships.

Most often FREEFLOW field research is done locally on watersheds like Cow Creek and Haskill Creek where most Whitefish residents get their drinking water from. Some of the most important work done by FREEFLOW is analyzing water quality data in partnership with organizations like the Whitefish Lake Institute and government agencies like Glacier National Park. These partnerships give students the chance to learn professional techniques for testing water quality, evaluating the health of a given habitat, and learning about the general ecology of important natural areas. This fall, FREEFLOW embarked on a rafting trip down the North Fork of the Flathead River to collect water quality and dispersed campsite data and learn about the ecology of the river. FREEFLOW is also interconnected with the recently created GIS and Field Ecology Class at WHS. GIS or Global Information Systems is a mapping platform that can be applied in many disciplines including natural resource management. GIS enables students, land managers and researchers to record information in a database and visualize data on a interactive map. Students in the dual credit college level GIS and Field Ecology class take the research conducted by FREEFLOW and analyze it to further to gain a deeper understanding of the work and to make it accessible to the public in internet based story maps.

While conducting field research is a big part of the club, community presence and volunteer work also plays an important role in the FREEFLOW experience. FREEFLOW students participate in many community events from helping set up the Farmers Market to volunteering and attending seminars at the annual Free the Seeds event at Flathead Community College, and even cleaning up the Whitefish Winter Carnival parade route. In the past year, groups of students have worked on personalized projects, giving them school credit and valuable insight into our community. Examples of personalized projects include increasing recycling opportunities in Whitefish (with Mr. Christian Bitterauf and the Big Dawg Club) and another with (Heart of Whitefish) helping expose residents to native plants by starting new water-conserving flower barrels downtown.

FREEFLOW also offers a multitude of other opportunities from ukulele lessons to an Avalanche Awareness Level 1 training course. This year students will have an opportunity to take a Wilderness First Aid course where they can learn how to manage and prevent basic medical emergencies in the places they are so often exposed to while in the club. FREEFLOW continues to grow and expand, enabling students to learn new things and most importantly, to be outside with their peers and teachers in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Annie Howeth is a senior at Whitefish High School.

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