By WILLIAM NEVILLE/Montana State News

According to data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Montana ranks 10th in the nation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) growth in education.

The rapid growth rate reflects the increased participation of students in STEM fields throughout the state. In the past month, a few noteworthy events have taken place in Montana that demonstrate the invested interest of students.

On March 21, hundreds of families in the Missoula area attended the ninth annual Science Circus at Big Sky High School. The science fair was a chance for high school students to demonstrate their creativity to inquisitive elementary and middle school students.

“There are over 80 different stations for guests to visit and interact with high school ‘experts’ and gain knowledge about various sub-units of science, including biology, chemistry and physics. Demonstrations under these categories include: flaming gummy bears, multiple dissections, smoke ring cannon, a Velcro wall and edible bugs to name a few,” Missoula County Public Schools said in a press release on the Science Circus.

On March 28, over 400 students from over 60 schools, grades one through 12, competed at the 27th Billings Clinic Science Expo at Montana State University Billings. Students applied the scientific method to various projects. The projects ranged from using spider webs to construct a suspension bridge, to investigating the learning capacity of a rat by observing if it would complete a maze faster and more efficiently the more times it attempts the maze.

Brittany Lindell, a judge at the Billings Clinic Science Expo, liked what the students had on display. “When I was judging the science fair, I was amazed at the variety of experiments. Kids were designing items I had never heard of and could explain not only how it works, but the economic need. I was told just how our community could use this or that,” Lindell said.

“There were first graders, building speakers and batteries. In our ever changing fast paced world, where we could barely figure out one electronic before the better version is on the shelves. Indeed, these kids seem to be a step ahead the rest of us,” Lindell said.

Though many educators are pleased that Montana is rated higher in growth than most states throughout the nation, room for improvement among educators is strongly recognized.

“We have a big chunk of students who are proficient, but we don’t have many students who are functioning at an advanced level, and those are the ones that typically can take advantage of the high level STEM skill sets,” said Linda Blank, a University of Montana professor of education.

Cody Noffsinger, a junior at Carroll College and a member of the Civic Newman Fellow, traveled to Browning, Montana, on a campus service ministry trip and volunteered in classes at the De La Salle Blackfeet School to help promote STEM to the economically disadvantaged community. Tribal communities throughout the state have had the most significant shortcomings within the STEM fields, and Noffsinger wants to help turn that corner.

According to Noffsinger, the trip to Browning was only supposed to be a one-time visit, but he kept making return visits and eventually brought a 3D printer from his campus engineering club to showcase the new technology. With the 3D printer, Noffsinger helped fifth grade students design an imaginary school. With the design, Noffsinger was able to print out the model and return to Browning to present the product.

“This was a community that, at least in the classes I had been engaged in, there was a lot of struggle, especially in the STEM fields. And they took this technical subject of 3D printing and worked together and held something in their hand and (saw) that they had completed something,” Noffsinger said in the Helena Independent Record.

– Edited by Erin Murdock

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