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Wearing their chest waders, University of Montana students hauled buckets from the irrigation ditch to learning assistant Kadie Heinle, who waited in the field.

"Do we have some fish?"

"Yeah."

They had suckers, a fancy-finned and pouty-mouthed sculpin, and some Northern pike minnows all swimming around in the bucket and awaiting a turn with the measuring tape.

Below the field, the wildlife biology students had set up a net in the irrigation ditch, measuring 50 meters, and walked along the water scooping up fish in nets and placing them in buckets after a graduate assistant shocked them into temporary cooperation.

In the great outdoors that serves as a classroom for many students at UM, their hands got wet, their waders got muddy, and their minds got a lesson they could take with them into future careers. Those like Heinle, who already knew the lessons and helped teach them, got time with a favorite critter.

"This is my favorite class. I love fish. I love learning about fish," said Heinle, who had been tapped to assist the faculty.

***

UM has a highly ranked wildlife biology program, and faculty member Andrew Whiteley said the ability to teach students in the field is one of the biggest draws of working in Missoula.

"We pride ourselves on experiential learning," said Whiteley, assistant professor of fisheries and conservation genomics. 

The lab of the day would serve three purposes for the mostly juniors and seniors in the class of 22. First, it would introduce students to some native species found in the Clark Fork River. Second, it would demonstrate "electrofishing," a common method used to collect fish in research. And last, the operation would serve as a rescue for the fish.

The fish swimming in the irrigation ditch would end up dying as the water dropped, but the ones the class caught and measured would get a second chance.

"We're going to put them in the Clark Fork," Whiteley said.

The students kept them from wriggling too much with a tiny dose of clove oil. They measured them and logged their lengths and then plopped them back into the water. Along the way, they looked closely at any oddities.

"After we measure them, we can put them into the viewing chamber and get a look," Whitely said.

***

For some students, the academic pursuit of wildlife biology represents their love of nature and the great outdoors, not necessarily a particular professional path. That's the case for Keeley Benson.

"I grew up in Montana, and I just like working outside," said Benson, who snapped pictures of the fish with her phone as she worked.

Originally from England, Ethan White has worked in Alaska as a guide, and he didn't have a set career path in mind, either. But he's a fan of being outdoors, and he appreciated the course because of its aquatic bent.

"This is the first class I've really loved. Fish are my thing. They're just cool," White said.

Ashton Clinger likes the direct experience she'll gain in class — and be able to tout on her resume. Clinger has worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but she said the field is competitive, and being able to learn skills researchers use on the job gives students a leg up when it comes time to job hunt.

For instance, she'd soon don a drysuit and learn to snorkel in Rattlesnake Creek as part of the lab. She hasn't snorkeled before and looks forward to expanding her skills.

"That's an opportunity for me career-wise," Clinger said.

***

Throughout the afternoon, students took turns at different tasks, like scooping the fish, measuring them and logging the measurements.

The suckers appeared to be the most prevalent species, and Whiteley periodically presented arguments for a name change that more adequately reflected their contributions to the ecosystem. Suckers are stream recyclers.

"Do you guys know what the Northern pike minnow used to be called?" he asked.

"Squaw fish," the students said.

Case and point. Said Whiteley: "Common names can change."

Another tiny fish had peach-colored bubbles along its skin, hard to the touch. The students hadn't observed the aberration before, and Whiteley suggested a call to an expert fish biologist to learn more.

"That's wild."

"He looks so weird."

Soon, the time came for another sweep of the ditch. The students changed places, one set of learners and explorers heading down the bank, and another set of eyes peering at the critters they'd collected in their own backyard.

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University of Montana, higher education