By Nathalie Wolfram
UM News Service
Rows of hollow computer towers lay sideways on desks in a small lecture hall in the University of Montana’s James E. Todd Building this week. Nineteen students, all rising seventh and eighth graders, hunch over the towers, delicately fitting RAM into place. Each student is building his or her own computer to take home at the end of a two-week summer camp.
Aaron Thomas, associate professor of chemistry and director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at UM, circulates among the students, answering questions and helping them troubleshoot.
The students make up the first cohort of the Montana American Indian Math and Science Program (MT-AIMS), a donor-funded program designed to promote Native American student retention and academic achievement in math and science. Fourteen of the students traveled from Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation and five from the Navajo Nation. All have the opportunity to continue in the program through their first year in college, with new cohorts joining each year.
During their stay at UM, the students take part in hands-on STEM activities led by UM faculty and experience college life: sleeping in dorms, hiking the M Trail and going on excursions to community events like Missoula’s Out to Lunch and eating in the Food Zoo. One camper proudly reported that he struck up a conversation with a table of UM football players and got to eat lunch with them.
The program is modeled on the successful, long-running Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), which works to increase Alaska Native representation in STEM education and careers with intensive programming for students from sixth grade through higher education.
Thomas, who has been associated with ANSEP for a decade, describes Alaska’s program as one of the few successful models in engaging Native students in STEM that works directly with students from sixth grade through graduate school.
“I wanted to build upon their success and bring their model to Montana,” he said.
Melanie Magee, Browning Public Schools’ GEAR UP coordinator, traveled with Thomas in 2018 to the National Science Foundation’s ANSEP Dissemination Conference, where they received further training on ANSEP’s model.
“As Native people, we’re naturally scientists, but somehow this gets lost,” Magee said. This is an opportunity to change that by strengthening students’ base in STEM, giving them opportunities to explore and showing them that science is fun. It boosts their confidence.”
Programs like MT-AIMS are vital, Magee said, because students in rural communities like hers don’t have the same level of access to out-of-school enrichment and pre-college programming as their urban peers.
In addition to learning about STEM and higher education, the students build a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.
Camp counselor Stephan Chase is an UM alumnus and member of the Navajo Nation who is returning to UM this fall as a graduate student. “It’s really cool to see how these kids work. If they get stuck, others are like, “‘Oh, I can help,'" he said.
By building their own computer, the students develop practical STEM skills while creating an actual tool to support their educational success. After successfully fitting a part into place, one student propped the still partial machine upright, ran his hand across it, and said, “This is a beautiful machine.”
Dean Jenny McNulty of UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences, a partner on the program, said the residential program has long-term benefits.
“MT-AIMS is an important program for UM as it provides important training for pre-college students and because it is held here on the campus, it allows students to imagine themselves here in the future as college students," she said.
Additional partners include UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and Browning Public Schools.