Montana State University

MSU athletes increasingly major in science and engineering fields

November 20, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Montana State University student Jackie Elliott of Billings studies in the MSU Athletic Department’s office for Athletic Academic Services. Elliott, who plays guard for the Bobcat women’s basketball team, is a mechanical engineering major and one of a growing number of Bobcat football players and MSU athletes in general are enrolling in majors in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math. Currently, 37 percent (143 of 383) of student-athletes at MSU are enrolled in STEM majors, a 50-percent increase since 2010. (MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – For Montana State University wide receiver Tanner Bleskin, the physical, mental and emotional exertion of playing football at the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision level is only half the story of his college life.

The other half is science. Bleskin is a microbiology major. So, in addition to his football commitments, there are labs to complete, research to do. Sleep and the social scene barely register on his busy schedule. But Bleskin said he doesn’t feel sorry for himself.

“I am not doing this to look good, this is what makes me happy,” Bleskin said. “I happen to like microbiology. Yeah, it’s hard, but I do enjoy it. And if I can make it through football while earning a microbiology degree, I figure I can make it through anything in life.”

Bleskin, a Great Falls native who last season earned second-team Academic All-America honors, is one of a growing number of Bobcat football players and MSU athletes in general who are enrolling in majors in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math. Currently, 37 percent (143 of 383) of student-athletes at MSU are enrolled in STEM majors, nearly a 50-percent increase since 2010.

“The fact that MSU is recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a top-tier research institution is something we actively promote when we are recruiting student-athletes,” said MSU Athletic Director Peter Fields. “And we follow that up with a commitment that we see their academic success as our first priority. By the same token, building winning sports programs is not mutually exclusive from recruiting students who are academically driven. In fact, that same drive is what fuels the competitive spirit so critical to top athletes.”

Rob Ash, whose tenure as head coach of MSU’s football team includes a 57-26 record over six-plus seasons, agreed.

When Ash was presenting to the public as a prospective head coach in 2007, a fan asked him how he would approach the difficult task of building a winning football program for a university known for rigorous academics. 

“I told him ‘We are going to win because we have rigorous academics, not in spite of that fact,’” Ash said. “There are some very successful coaches out there who only recruit top academic achievers because they understand that you can’t separate the personality traits that go with academic success. And that is the mindset we have. We want athletes who have always been willing to make the sacrifices needed to both play football and succeed in the classroom.”

Athletes in other MSU sports make the same sacrifices.

Jackie Elliott, a junior mechanical engineering major from Billings, started at shooting guard for the MSU women’s basketball team in a game at the University of Wyoming on Friday night. On Saturday morning, immediately after stepping off the plane in Bozeman, Elliott headed for Roberts Hall, where she took the exam she’d missed for her class on electrical circuits.

“Once we get into conference play, it feels like I’m missing every other week of school,” Elliott said. “But when a course begins, we show our professors our team schedule so we can figure out how we can work around the time we’re away. Coaches will proctor exams and professors are very understanding of the amount of time we are putting in for our sport.”

While on the road, student-athletes working on hand-written engineering schematics or equations often photograph their homework and email the images to their professors.

Addie Langner, a sophomore from Missoula who is a cell biology and neuroscience major and a pole-vaulting specialist on the Bobcat track and field team, said the biggest difference maker for student-athletes often comes from the tutoring and academic counseling available from the staff at the Office of Athletic Academic Services in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

“You can tell they really care about how you’re doing,” said Langner. “They might have 200 other athletes they are tracking but they still somehow know everybody’s name and where they are with their majors and how they are doing as a student.”

In recent years, that commitment has MSU boasting some strong benchmarks for how its student-athletes are succeeding:

  • MSU student-athletes, including transfers, collectively achieved a graduation success rate of 81 percent for the cohort of 2004-2009 (the most recent period that data is available).
  • The Bobcat women’s basketball team grade-point average has ranked it among the NCAA’s top 15 programs academically in six of the last eight years.
  • Of 383 playing an MSU sport, there are currently 23 Bobcats in the MSU Honors Program, and in spring semester of this year, there were 23 who made the President’s List for achieving a 4.0 GPA, 77 who made the Dean’s List for having a 3.5 GPA or better and 90 athletes who earned a 3.0 or better.
  • The spring semester of 2013, during which 191 Bobcats posted a GPA of 3.0 or better, was MSU’s 23rd straight semester with a collective GPA above 3.0.

Ellie Crum, a senior from Great Falls, said she is proud to play tennis for a school where the commitment to academics is unequivocal.

“When you tell people you are on an athletic scholarship, a lot of them assume you’re majoring in yoga or something, but that’s not how (the MSU Athletic Department) views it at all,” said Crum, who is majoring in exercise science. “Right from the beginning, Peter Fields tells us to always remember that the ‘student’ in student-athlete comes first.”

Ash said he and his staff understand that their players face certain immovable obstacles in their schedules – practices, meetings, travel and games are mandatory. And when a student selects an especially intense major, Ash said the coaches are supportive.

“What gets sacrificed is sleep,” Ash said. “Their lives are divided into 50 percent on the academic side and 50 percent on the athletic side. When all is said and done, there’s really not much time for anything else. So they don’t get to play as many video games or sleep in.”

The fact that many student-athletes are signing up for majors that often require more credits to graduate is worth noting, said Rob Maher, professor and department head in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

“I think people assume that athletes are taking a smaller course load than typical students,” Maher said. “And given the time these students give to their practice schedule and games and travel, it is just amazing when they step up for STEM degrees, which typically require more courses.”

Maher said student-athletes who have succeeded in an engineering or science major have likely set themselves apart from the crowd when it comes to their post-college lives.

“I think that kind of dedication pays off forever,” Maher said. “The fact that they can keep that many balls in the air and succeed in their endeavors speaks very highly of their abilities.”

Former Bobcat tight end Elliott Barnhart, who received Academic All-America honors, as well as the MSU football team’s Offensive Player of the Year award for the 2006 season, said his experiences with hands-on research as a microbiology major led him to pursue his doctorate. Now, with a defense of his dissertation on the coal-loving microbes responsible for producing methane gas pending next spring, Barnhart is set to launch his career with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Montana Water Science Center in Helena.

“It’s a dream job,” said Barnhart, who grew up in Broadus.

Despite the fact that she doesn’t know exactly what her dream job will look like, junior Nordic skier Annie Liotta understands the sacrifices she is facing if she follows through on her goal of medical school.

Liotta, who hails from Anchorage, Alaska, said balancing academics with the travel-heavy schedule of the ski team is good training. Last winter, during a trip to a ski meet in northern New Mexico, Liotta said she spent many hours of van time hunched over her organic chemistry texts. When the light faded, she broke out her headlamp.

“I’m in a place where I know what direction I want to go with my education,” Liotta said. “And coming to MSU to continue my skiing career has led me to that place.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371,