Montana State University

MSU program helps high school students chart a path to careers in science

June 21, 2010 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

High school junior Teton Magpie from Lame Deer identifies a rock sample with MSU earth sciences professor Mark Skidmore during a geology class as part of the Montana Apprenticeship Program. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Groups of students gathered in the sunshine outside of Montana State University's Roberts Hall recently, investigating objects labeled only with pieces of blue tape. The objects were rocks, and the high school students were on a quest to identify them as igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary.

MSU earth sciences professor Mark Skidmore asked the students about one of the rocks. "Does it feel coarse? Remember, how it looks is different from how it feels."

The students puzzled over the rocks, investigating the color, grain size, hardness and weight of each one to identify them.

As they correctly identified the rocks, some smiled, gave their teammates kudos or simply moved on to the next one.

"It's pretty fun," said Keshia Birdhat, one of the students participating in the investigation.

Birdhat, a member of the Crow and Lakota Tribes who will be a junior at Skyview High School in Billings, is one of 19 students on campus for the Montana Apprenticeship Program (MAP), a six-week camp designed to increase the number of Native American and minority students who pursue careers in science.

MAP is part of the American Indian Research Opportunities program and has been bringing Native American and minority students to the MSU campus for more than 25 years.

The camp this year is focused on alternative energy and is organized into sections about earth sciences, plant sciences and engineering. Another track of the camp is focused entirely on chemistry. Students participate in a number of hands-on activities throughout the camp, with classroom lectures supplementing the exercises. They also spend time on the weekends traveling to diverse sites around the state. This year, they'll visit a wind farm, Yellowstone National Park, Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Museum of the Rockies and a Superfund site. They also plan to hike, raft, and do activities on a high-ropes course.

In addition to its goal of getting minority students into the sciences, the program is designed to show the students what it's like to work in science and math at a university level. Part of the strength of the program is its emphasis on hands-on activities, said MAP coordinator Scott Zander.

"If they're actually doing it, they're learning a lot more," he said. "They're applying what they're being taught."

Zander, who went through the program twice himself in the '90s, said it is also valuable because it gives the students a taste of the college experience.

"A lot of our students come from rural areas, so it really helps show them what it's like to be on campus," Zander said.

This year, 19 students are enrolled in the program. The majority of them are Native American students from Montana, and a handful of students are from California, New Mexico and Texas. Most of the students will be juniors or seniors in high school in the fall.

Admission to the program is competitive; students must complete an application with essays, and there are usually at least 30 to 40 applicants for the 20 available slots. The students receive a stipend of $1,620 for their participation in the camp. Funding is provided through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and EPSCoR.

Statistics show that the program appears to be meeting its goal, Zander said. From 2002-2009, the only years with data readily available, roughly 193 high school students completed the MAP program. Of those students, roughly 72 percent went on to enroll in a four-year university.

Birdhat said she is especially excited to learn about plants and water issues, such as contamination. She had been interested in pursuing nursing as a career, but is now thinking more about the sciences.

Cary Hicks, an 18-year-old from Houston who will be a senior in high school in the fall, said much of the material in the program has been new and interesting, and she is considering applying to MSU.

"I originally looked at this school for architecture, but now I'm thinking about it for engineering," she said.

In fact, Birdhat and Hicks' positive experiences with MAP are prime examples of the strength of the program, Zander said.

"It's another way of getting students interested in science and math," Zander said. "It's another component instead of sitting inside and just doing bookwork and math work."

Scott Zander, (406) 994-5514 or Marjorie Old Horn, (406) 994-5847