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Discovery Discovery NewsletterDecember 1999 / January 2000

Main Page On the Web Patents Corner Featured Stories In Focus


Montana Gains Stature in

Eyes of Space Agency


by Annette Trinity-Stephens

Money for aerospace education in Montana has nearly doubled, thanks to an upgrade to a NASA-funded program offering opportunities for students in grade school through college.

The budget for the Montana Space Grant Consortium recently was increased from $256,000 a year to $475,000 a year for the next five years.

That's because the consortium of 13 Montana colleges, universities and tribal colleges successfully competed for "designated" status with the nation's space agency, a goal that was out of reach nine years ago when the consortium began. Montana Gains Stature

"Designation depended on a number of criteria, most importantly the state had to have more than $2 million in NASA-funded university research grants per year," said consortium director and MSU-Bozeman physics professor William Hiscock. "Back in 1990, Montana didn't come close to qualifying."

Instead, it was considered a "capability enhancement state" and awarded a smaller pot of money to improve the state's aerospace research infrastructure. Since then, major projects in solar physics, space education and satellite imaging brought Montana's total research to the required amount, Hiscock said.

Montana was one of 21 states eligible for the upgrade and one of four selected to receive it. Competition for the upgrade was "extremely intense," explained Julius Dasch, manager of NASA Space Grant and related programs.

"NASA could easily have funded seven or eight states but only had money for four," he said.

He credited Hiscock and associate director Loren Acton for the Montana program's success, especially for the way they incorporate the state's smaller universities and tribal colleges.

"There's no problem, and that's not the case across the country," Dasch said. "There are always [programs] we like to talk about, and this is one we're proud of."

The consortium, based at MSU-Bozeman, is behind several popular education programs around the state, such as the Mars Exploration Outreach Program. Now in its third year, the program trains college students to give presentations to K-12 classrooms on NASA's Mars mission. Students in more than 300 Montana classrooms have learned about the red planet, the solar system and general planetary science. In the last eight years, the consortium also has funded research on how immune system cells behave in space; science experiments that college students have tested on NASA's KC-135 plane, also called the "vomit comet;" planetarium shows at the Museum of the Rockies; and summer science camps for Native American students.

Using its bigger budget, the Montana consortium will add new programs like "Space after School," a project that will take middle school students on virtual field trips to NASA space centers once a month.

Another is the Montana Space Odyssey that will start next summer. It's a two-week summer camp for junior-high school students interested in science and mathematics.

Also slated for increases are the number of scholarships and fellowships for Montana college students and research opportunities for undergraduate students around the state.

For information about Consortium programs, contact Laurie Howell at (406) 994-4223.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the MSU Research Editor.

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