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STEM education seeing rapid growth in Montana

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Montana stacking up well in emerging field Montana stacking up well in emerging field
By: Robbie Reynold - MTN News Missoula

MISSOULA - Math and science - two subjects that many students struggle with, but are vital to our future. Reporter Robbie Reynold went On Special Assignment to take a look at how Montana educators are trying to improve the state's performance.

You don't expect to hear the words "I want to be an engineer," "I love like math and stuff," and "lots of us want to be engineers," - very often especially out of the mouths of sixth graders.

Children with a passion for science, technology, engineering and math - often referred to as STEM - can be found around Western Montana - including plenty of them at events like a recent robotics competition at Hellgate Elementary School.

"Helping the world, and being able to build things as a job that would be so cool," Target Range School sixth grade student Faith Wells said.

"You figure out how to build this and that, and you feel so good when you finish, and so I just really like it," Target Range student Sabryn Knight added.

Faith and Sabryn are the kind of students that teachers and government officials are looking for. The United States as a whole has made a concentrated effort to increase student interest in left-brain fields, hoping to create more engineers and scientists, careers that are in high demand.

So where does Montana stack up? The National Assessment of Educational Progress grades students nationwide, and the Treasure State looks good on paper, placing second in eighth grade science in 2011. 

Based on Chamber of Commerce data, Montana is tenth in the nation in STEM growth. But that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. 

"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," UM professor of education Linda Blank pointed out.

Many educators are making efforts to take Montana to the next level, and SpectrUM Discovery Area Director Holly Truitt believes that starts with early childhood education.

If we think about it neurologically, we know that children in the first five years of their life are having the greatest amount of brain development."

Truitt runs the SpectrUM museum in Missoula, where kids can learn about science through interactive games.

The museum also has research grade equipment, check this out. This microscope is actually hooked up to the television set, so whatever happens underneath the scope shows up on the big screen.

Like four-star football recruits, The University of Montana makes an effort to find top-notch academic students in the STEM fields. Students like Jenny Lind - a former Darby High School valedictorian who is is getting her PhD in Neuroscience. She's focusing her research on brain transporters that carry D Serine, an amino acid that's vital for learning and memory.

"What our hope is that we can learn how these transporters function and then we can potentially learn how to manipulate them so we can therapeutically treat some disorders," Lind explained.

Samson Johnson is studying physics at UM, researching astronomy that worthy of a Star Trek episode. Johnson and other students are using telescopes and computers to find other planets. 

"So you'll see the star wobble a little bit, and you can see the stars wobble through its movements, and its spectra through the Doppler shift, and we're able to detect planets around other stars that way," he told us.

 Johnson graduates in May, and is considering several options for graduate school - including astrophysics. Meanwhile, Lind is thinking about a legislative career, where she could help lawmakers create bills that benefit neuroscience research.

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