“Eyes on the side means I like to hide. Eyes in the front means I like to hunt.”

That was one of the messages that Drew Lefebvre, a teaching naturalist at the Montana Natural History Center, conveyed to students in Michele Riordon’s fourth-grade class at Hawthorne Elementary School this week.

Lefebvre was using mammal skulls to teach scientific concepts – including skull identification – to the students Wednesday as part of the Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program.

Predators often have eyes in the front of their skulls to assist them when chasing prey, and herbivores often have eyes on each side of the skull to help them detect when they are being hunted, Lefebvre said.

“Look at the size of those incisors,” Lefebvre said to a group of fascinated kids as they tried to identify a skull. “Look at the canines and the molars. Does that tell you it’s a carnivore, an herbivore or an omnivore?”

In fact, the skull turned out to be that of a porcupine, the largest rodent native to Montana. The students also got to see mountain lion, skunk, pine marten and coyote skulls, each with their own unique adaptations for survival.

For the past 14 years, staff naturalists at the MNHC have traveled to 64 classrooms in western Montana each month, using Montana’s flora and fauna to teach essential scientific concepts.

“It goes directly to our mission, which is to cultivate an appreciation and understanding and a sense of stewardship of nature and the outdoors,” said MNHC executive director Thurston Elfstrom. “Certainly we’re not the only folks in our region that are looking to do these kinds of things. And we all identified that if we get kids outdoors and develop their appreciation of nature earlier, it has several benefits, including of course, the stewardship angle. There is also strong evidence to suggest getting kids outdoors benefits overall learning, brain development and can be a positive factor in increasing grades and so forth.”

The Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program, which reaches 1,500 students in the region annually, is integrated into the school year, starting in September.

In October, naturalists lead students on all-day field trips. This month, they're studying skulls of all shapes and sizes. Next month, they’ll explore winter adaptations. They’ll also study birds and other wildlife, use nets to catch insects, and peer through microscopes.

Elfstrom said the program started when the organization realized there was a need to lend expertise to schools to educate students about Montana’s abundant wildlife.

“Grade-school science is tough, and we don’t have strong support from the state to help educators out,” he said. “And we felt there was a great need to teach certain sciences like natural history. We have two-full time teaching naturalists, and next school year we will actually be expanding that to three full-time teaching naturalists.”

The program has gotten a great response over the years.

“We get a very positive response,” Elfstrom said. “We’ve developed some great partnerships. They give us really great feedback when the naturalist comes to class. The naturalist is somewhat of a mentor to kids. We hear from parents that we’ve really increased their kids’ knowledge about animals and native plants, that kind of thing. A lot of times, kids will bring their families back to field trip locations and say, ‘There’s a pileated woodpecker,’ and point out things. It’s great.”

The MNHC is a nonprofit founded in 1991 by a group of educators who wanted to create a natural history center as a resource for schools and the public.

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