KMS Science Club wins state award for studying microplastics in Lake Foys


The Kalispell High School Science Club recently won a statewide award for its work on microplastics in local lakes.

The club, made up of students in grades six through eight, was a winner in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s School of Savings and Resources Today (SMART) Challenge and was awarded $2,000.

Science Club Advisor Annie Gustafson said this was the first time that Kalispell Middle School had participated in the SMART Schools Challenge.

The club’s main projects include researching and educating the public about microplastics in local lakes and about native plants. Club members also organize a native plant garden at the school and host an Earth Day “Trash Bash” community clean-up.

Eighth graders Rita Henshaw, Dylan Bauer and Sam Syverson teamed up and chose to conduct a microplastic study at Foys Lake. What sparked their interest was an October 2021 Hungry Horse News article reporting on Glacier National Park fisheries biologist Chris Downs finding microplastics in Lake McDonald.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as “small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long,” which can be harmful to aquatic life.

The students contacted Downs to guide them through the same procedures and protocols he used to collect and test water samples from Lake McDonald. The group chose Lake Foys because of its proximity to high schools and because it is a popular destination in the valley for fishing, boating, swimming, and water skiing. This location also has a residential development.

“It gets a lot of winter activity as well for fishing,” says Syverson.

The group believes they will find microplastics.

“Our attitude was like, if we found microplastics, that would be very good for our study but very bad for the environment,” Henshaw said.

“I was expecting a little bit of plastic because I just found out that a lot of people go there,” Bauer added.

THE GROUP started the project by overlaying a grid on the Lake Foys map. Henshaw said they used a random number generator to decide which points in the lake they would sample. The group said they sampled 11 different points, covering about 20% of their grid.

Then they lower the plankton nets (nets with very fine meshes) into the water.

“This lets water in, but still catches zooplankton,” Bauer said, describing the size of the mesh. “We only had 25 feet of rope so we went down about 20 feet. Some of the deepest points are a little over 100 feet. ”

Once the water samples are run through a coffee filter, they are ready to be examined under a microscope. Students use the Downs “hot pinning” technique to determine whether what they observe under a microscope is plastic or not. This meant heating the pins over a fire and then piercing what they thought was plastic. If it rolls up it is documented as microplastic.

“There was a very bright pink color that we found at first,” Bauer said.

“It looked like a little pink box,” Syverson said.

Other samples are not so clear.

“There may be an average of five microplastics in each sample,” Syverson said.

The group was asked if what they found was a little or a lot for such a large lake, Gustafson reminded them to try not to count at this point.

“We don’t have a baseline of what the average lake has in terms of plastic because it usually isn’t in lakes,” Bauer said. “Really, there’s a lot of plastic in the lake because it’s a foreign object. I think they classified it as urban debris.”

With concerns about harmful plastics entering the food chain, the group wondered if they could find microplastics in the digestive systems of fish caught during winter holidays and frozen.

“We thought it would be a fun experiment while waiting for the Foys to thaw,” Gustafson said.

Like many experiments, there are successes and failures. Dissection is a mess.

“There were 16 shiners there,” Syverson said. “We also found small pine cones, and some sunflower seeds, which aren’t naturally there.”

The group wants to continue their research, either continuing the Foys Lake sample or testing Bitterroot Lake.

A whole takeaway came from the project.

“We need to do more to prevent this,” said Henshaw, which means educating the public.

The group then traveled to the state Capitol in Helena to attend the SMART School Symposium where Governor Greg Gianforte stopped to look at a piece of microplastic under a microscope.

The group also presented their findings to the school supervisory board in the hope that a district-level “green team” could be formed. The squad will consist of student and staff representatives.

“This team will focus on reducing single-use plastic from our schools and will work to reduce waste and save energy,” said Henshaw. “The green team will have student and teacher representatives from each school. The group will work with the community and the school board to reduce and conserve energy.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson can be reached at 406-758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

Reporter Hilary Matheson can be reached at 406-758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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