BOZEMAN — For five of the last six years, middle schoolers from across the state have gathered at Montana State University in the name of science and exploration.
They come to campus with curiosity in their minds and spend five days at the MSU Explore: Earth and Space Science Camp in search of answers. Most leave with more than just that, namely the idea college is possible and their futures are bright.
The camp, hosted by MSU Academic Technology and Outreach, aims to engage students from underserved communities in hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics and inspire them to go to college and pursue degrees in those subjects. This year’s camp was held July 11-16 on the MSU campus. Last year’s camp was canceled due to the pandemic.
The camp immerses students in the college experience, from living in residence halls and eating in dining halls to exploring MSU’s academic buildings and meeting faculty, staff and students.
“As time goes on you see these kids come back to MSU for field trips with their high school or maybe come back for Science Olympiad and there is such a sense of belonging,” said Jamie Cornish, outreach specialist for ATO and camp director. “They will say, ‘There’s the dorm I lived in. There’s the lab I worked in. I worked with this professor.’ They feel so comfortable. Their faces light up and it’s magic.”
Cornish has been a part of the camp since it started in 2015 and has seen firsthand what these interactions between campers and MSU faculty can do. When she visits some of the schools in the fall for other programs, the students have retained what they learned at camp and pass it on to their peers.
“We reminisce and talk about things they learned in camp,” Cornish said. “I’ve gone to schools to light off rockets and they are like ‘Oh, we did this in camp, I can help you.’ Or if they are in high school and their science club starts doing things with middle schoolers, they model the behavior and become mentors.”
The camps have been funded by the NASA Northwest Earth and Space Science Pipeline as well as a new sponsor this year, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or Montana GEAR UP. The program is funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, supporting middle and high schools, students, and their families to increase college and career readiness. It serves more than 8,000 students, including 5,800 Native American students.
For this year’s camp at MSU, 50 students from 14 communities across the state and four reservations – Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Rocky Boy – were registered to attend.
The 2021 camp revolved around how life on Earth and space exploration are related. As examples, Cornish listed the importance of physical and mental health to astronauts in space; how NASA monitors Earth’s environment and climate; and understanding what life is and what elements it needs to thrive if you are looking for life on other planets. Eleven unique workshops with topics ranging from robotics to infectious diseases and chemistry to Native American science gave campers an idea of how science connects to their lives and the universe.
Cornish said it is an optimistic and exciting time for space exploration, and NASA has a goal of diversifying its future workforce, ideally with people like the campers. During orientation, campers were introduced to the NASA Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon in 2024.
Workshops are led by MSU faculty, staff and students. In one, “Taking Flight,” campers spent their days learning about aviation. Participants built gliders, tested them off the MSU parking garage and then, using what they learned, enhanced their aircraft.
Samantha Riebling, a senior at MSU majoring in technology education with a broadfield teaching option, was an instructor for the aviation workshop. Riebling said she was excited to see that, of her 12 students, nine were girls. Riebling, who is also an intern at the Montana Space Grant Consortium BOREALIS lab, said she wanted to help them succeed.
“I got involved in this camp because there were people that were willing to give me a hand, get me involved and give me the confidence to be in this field,” Riebling said. “Hopefully these girls can get some confidence in their learning from my workshop and can go further in life.”
In another workshop, “Neuroscience and Self-care: Understand Yourself at a Cellular Level,” campers learned how their brains and nervous systems create behaviors, emotions and personality. The workshop was led by MSU alum Zariah Tolman, who earned degrees in cell biology and neuroscience and biochemistry. Tolman received a Samuel Huntington Fellowship for Public Service award and was a Truman Scholar during her time at MSU.
Tolman is from a town of 50 people in Wyoming and did not have much experience with STEM until college, so for her, working with the camp was an opportunity to reach out to kids with similar upbringings. She praised ATO for providing opportunities to young students.
“I feel that’s the coolest part,” she said. “It’s not just this one little thing of ‘they’re going to have a transformative experience at camp.’ But it’s this ongoing relationship with all these schools and towns to give students long-term success.”
Georgeline Morsette, a fifth-year student majoring in art education, served as a camp counselor in 2019 before returning this year. Morsette, who is from Rocky Boy, said she loved being a counselor and watching the students grow over the course of the week.
In the beginning of the week, she said, most of the campers are shy and don’t raise their hands. By the end of the camp, they are asking questions and running up to Morsette telling her how they are a real scientist and hope to continue to college.
“A lot of the kids that come here, it’s their first time away. They come from a rural town with just a gas station or a store and they walk around campus looking at skyscraper-like buildings in awe. I was the same way,” she said. “But by mid-week they’re walking around like they own the joint and it’s super cool to see the development and observe how their interests spark.”
Peyton Pitman, an eighth-grader from Belgrade with a passion for chemistry and engineering, attended this year’s camp because it is the only one of its kind in the area. Two of the three workshops he took – “Chemistry Experiments and How Chemistry Answers Nature’s Questions” and “Mechanical Engineering: The Science of Making, Shaking and Breaking Things” – catered to his interests and helped fuel his desire to work as a medical chemist or engineer when he grows up.
“This helps because (the classes) open your eyes on how stuff is done and also gives you a demonstration of what the jobs are actually like,” Pitman said.
Cornish acknowledges that outreach to communities is the core to MSU’s land-grant mission. She also recognizes the value in retaining relationships with the students once they leave campus and return home.
“We hope we can visit these schools in the fall and bring science activities to them to have that two-way engagement,” Cornish said. “We would love it to be way more than them coming here. We want to continue the dialogue and learn from each other, visit these communities and have a better relationship.”