UM Faculty Member Uses Robots to Win National Innovation Challenge

October 24, 2019

UM’s Sara Rinfret won a national pitch competition by describing how robots can help rural students attend class remotely.MISSOULA – With a little help from robots, University of Montana faculty member Sara Rinfret recently won a national pitch competition designed to enhance student education.

Dr. Rinfret chairs UM’s Department of Public Administration and Policy and is an associate professor in the Alexander Blewett III School of Law. She competed in the third annual Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Voinovich Public Innovation Challenge, which was held Oct. 16-19 in Los Angeles.

Rinfret’s winning presentation illustrated how robots can provide another access point for student success in rural, Western states like Montana. She described how students in remote areas access robots placed in UM classrooms to virtually attend class. The robots allow them to look around, hear lectures and ask questions.

“Our department is committed to student success,” Rinfret said, “and the use of robots for online students to access in-person classrooms is a viable pathway for working professionals to receive their degree.”

Rinfret competed for the national honor against top-ranked schools, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Syracuse University and the University of Southern California Price. Each finalist had 5 to 7 minutes to pitch their public innovation challenge. The win came with a $3,500 prize.

“This is a wonderful recognition of the innovative approach to teaching that Dr. Rinfret is pioneering with our Master of Public Administration program,” said Paul Kirgis, dean of UM’s law school.

The pitch competition highlights exciting new strategies for enhancing student education, addressing unmet needs, advancing knowledge, or improving programmatic efficiency or effectiveness.

“It was an honor to win this award named for the late U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, whom I worked for as an undergraduate growing up in Ohio,” Rinfret said.

UM’s MPA offers students the ability to complete their degree online or in person, providing flexibility for public and nonprofit professionals to advance their current and future careers. The program allows students to customize their degree by specializing in nonprofit administration or obtaining a joint degree in law or public health. Many students elect to add a certificate in public policy, nonprofit administration or natural resource conflict resolution.

Learn more about the program at

UM views Rinfret’s accomplishment as an expression of SEA Change, a University initiative dedicated to empowering women and accelerating them into lives of impact by an unwavering commitment to their success. 


Contact: Sara Rinfret, associate professor and chair, UM Department of Public Administration and Policy, 406-243-4702,