Montana State University

MSU program bridges digital divide for rural students

June 29, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Kristopher Harris of Cut Bank and Craig Cliff of Fort Belknap work on the wiring of an infrared camera imager during a 10-week Montana State University program which introduces undergraduates from rural areas to research. (MSU photo by Tracy Ellig.)    High-Res Available

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For 21-year-old Kristopher Harris of Cut Bank, this summer might have been another one of stocking shelves at a local grocery store. Instead, he's working on a project that could help satellites orbiting Mars communicate more effectively with Earth.

Harris is one of 11 undergraduate students doing hands-on research on problems ranging from how satellites talk across space to search-and-rescue communications in rugged areas as part of a new 10-week program at Montana State University's College of Engineering.

The program is the brainchild of Richard Wolff, MSU's Gilhousen Telecommunications Chair professor and an expert on wireless technology. Wolff and fellow MSU engineering professor Yikun Huang wrote a successful proposal to have the National Science Foundation fund the program from 2007 through every summer to 2010. Huang is an expert on signal processing and antenna design.

"We intentionally designed the program to reach out to community colleges and tribal colleges in Montana and the Rocky Mountain West," Wolff said. "There are a lot of very talented students from rural areas who don't normally have the chance to do this kind of work. We wanted to provide an opportunity."

The goal of the program is to excite undergraduate students about research and graduate school.

"I've always found engineering to be a fascinating discipline," said Harris, who is taking the summer course at MSU while earning an associate degree in math and science from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning. "I'm really having a good time here. I've got excellent advisors and a graduate student mentor who is making the program really fun."

Students receive a $4,000 stipend, a housing and meal allowance, up to $500 in travel expenses and, in some cases, college credit. There are picnics, barbecues, a trip to Yellowstone National Park and other activities on the weekends.

For Craig Cliff, 41, the program is a chance to do complicated lab work.

"A lot of my experience has just been classroom lecture. I wanted to be in a hands-on environment," said Cliff, who lives in Fort Belknap and commutes to Havre, where he is working on a bachelors degree in computer information systems at MSU-Northern. He had previously earned an associate arts of science degree from Fort Belknap Community College.

"We're pretty into it here. We're learning how to handle data and how to read it," Cliff said of the program. "I didn't know what to expect when I enrolled. The research topics are really complicated and they're giving us the tools to work with this complex data."

Cliff too had praise for his faculty advisors and graduate student mentors.

"I'm really happy with what I'm learning. It's going to give me a lot of confidence working with other program down the road," he said. "Through this research my horizons are expanding."

Wireless communications for rural areas is a major focus of the 10-week program. In one project students are trying to build an on-the-fly wireless network for law enforcement in rugged rural areas where cell and radio towers are sparse or non-existent. The project is in partnership with the sheriff's office of Hot Springs, Wyo.

"It's an overused phrase, but there is a 'digital divide,' between rural and urban areas," Wolff said.

Though wireless communications wasn't her primary area of interest, Patty Morning, 24, of Box Elder, was intrigued enough to apply for the program.

"I'm more of a hands-on person and I'm really enjoying that part of it. I get to look at new hardware: filters, amplifiers and a spectrum analyzer," said Morning, who is attending MSU-Northern in computer engineering technology and was raised on the Rocky Boy Reservation.

"Also, there are not many female engineers in my school and so it's really refreshing to see more females in the program," she said.

Morning has already been offered out-of-state jobs in computer hardware and a graduate scholarship to attend MSU, but she is still pondering her future.

"This is a great experience for me," she said. "Maybe at the end of 10 weeks, I'll know what I want to do."

Contact: Richard Wolff, (406) 994-7172 or rwolff@ece.montana.edu