On Wednesday afternoon at Missoula International School, fifth-grader Ava Kazemi stood before a group of parents, teachers and younger students, holding an enormous and quite adorable stuffed dog.
"This is a wolf, by the way," she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.
OK, it wasn't really a wolf. But then again, the skit that she and fellow fifth-graders Ariella Salinas and Granger Eichorn performed wasn't intended to be perfectly realistic.
Presented entirely in Spanish, the skit - written by the trio of students - outlined the differing perspectives of ranchers and environmentalists on the issue of wolf reintroduction in Montana.
The skit was one part of a multi-faceted presentation created by the three students around the heady and often controversial subject. Employing elements that included a detailed model of wilderness habitat before and after wolf reintroduction, a tri-fold display featuring numerous charts and texts, and a spoken presentation, the three students offered their studied perspectives - along with at least one novel idea - about the complex question of how to balance the concerns of ranchers with the ideals of biodiversity.
"Granger had an idea that since the wolves hear the other wolves howling and don't come near, maybe you could record wolves howling and play them around the livestock so the real wolves wouldn't come near," said Kazemi.
Along the way, they learned a good bit about learning itself.
"We learned about a lot of perspectives, how one animal can affect an entire environment," said Eichorn. "We also learned that it's not so bad working in a group; you can get a lot more done."
Depending on how you look at it, the project was either a month or years in the making, explained Julie Lennox, head of Missoula International School.
"The aim of this project was really to put together all of the elements of the education that these students have been earning over the years that they've been here," said Lennox. "It's very much a 21st century approach to learning - focused on collaboration, communication, the ability to absorb and collect diverse types of information. That's why we're so excited about it."
The wolf reintroduction project - one of four put together on different topics by fifth-graders at the school - has its roots in the Primary Years Program (PYP) of the International Baccalaureate World School, an education program offered by nearly 3,000 schools worldwide and aimed at infusing all school subject areas with global perspectives.
Last June, the Missoula International School became the first in the Pacific Northwest to offer the PYP curriculum, which focuses on students ages 3-12.
"The PYP really fits with Missoula International School's own mission, in that it focuses on tying curricular goals - reading, writing, science, math and so-on - to global perspectives and real issues that the students are interested in," said Lennox.
For students Madelyn Osellame, Georgia Kazemi and Everett Bayer, the issue of interest was childhood obesity. The three presented a PowerPoint slideshow on the subject, shared graphs of data about the pervasiveness and causes of childhood obesity in the United States, and performed a humorous skit - also in Spanish - about the effects of eating too many double-bacon cheeseburgers from "Burger Queen" and the "Butta Bellybuster Parfait" from "Dairy King."
As part of their project, Osellame, Kazemi and Bayer raised $310.53 to purchase a set of active games for use by Missoula International School students on the playground.
The project has already had an effect on Bayer.
"It's made me personally more aware of what I'm eating, and what I do - I've been playing more and sitting around less," he said.
Other student groups presented projects on beef production techniques, and the removal of Milltown Dam.
Julie Salinas sat watching the presentations with her daughter, Gabriella, who attends preschool at Missoula International School. Salinas' older daughter, Ariella, helped put together the wolf reintroduction presentation.
"They've been kind of stressed out about it, it's a lot of work, but they did a great job," beamed Salinas after the presentations were completed. "I think it's a great way to culminate everything they've been learning at the school since she started in preschool. It's fun for them to put all their English and Spanish skills together on an issue that's important to a lot of people around here."