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Community members will have a chance next week to help design a new feature for the Missoula Public Library, a DNA climbing structure.

The climbing structure connects a series of panels into an interactive sculpture, and it aims to help children develop their motor and social skills, according to preliminary designs. The renditions show a two-story structure modeled after DNA and accompanied by exhibits that span the first and second floors of the new library.

At a brainstorming session from 5:30-7:00 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21, at the Public House, 130 E. Broadway, community members will help design the climbing structure and also make suggestions for a community research lab. A $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is funding all costs associated with the structure and lab.

The structure and lab will be housed in the new Missoula Public Library, east of the current library on Main Street, which is on track to be completed in June of 2020 and is "right on schedule," according to Missoula County facilities manager Larry Farnes.

"We're still in the structural part of building it, meaning the building envelope, cement, floors, windows going in," Farnes said.

A parking garage serving as the building's base is the closest to completion, with more to do as each of the four occupied floors progress. The majority of the building is weather tight for winter so construction to the interior can continue as temperatures drop, Farnes said.

The new library is being paid for with a $30 million voter-approved bond, a $5.65-million capital campaign from private donors and $850,000 in pre-paid expenses. 

The grant-funded project is a collaboration between the City of Missoula, the University of Montana and the Missoula Public Library, with the goal of promoting STEM learning throughout the community and increasing social mobility for residents.

The structure would connect the early childhood and young learners area on the first floor with the young adults area on the second floor.

"It's really our community's first approach at a community-based collective impact approach to create health sciences and healthy living experiences for people across the region, specifically people from unique economic backgrounds and with workforce needs in rural and tribal areas," said Eran Pehan, the city's director of the Office of Housing and Community Development.

At the brainstorming session, a national and local design team will help families, children and community members produce prototypes and discuss the lab.

Holly Truitt, the director and principle investigator for the project, said she views the finished result as a community hub and estimates that over 400 children will visit each day.

A wall separating the structure from other areas of the library will help contain the noise, said Missoula Public Library Director Honore Bray.

Bray said the structure won’t only promote children's interest in health professions, but will also meet a need for an indoor play structure and help keep kids active.

“We have a long winter in Missoula, and it allows families an opportunity to do something indoors that’s active that they don’t have to pay for,” Bray said.

The research lab will also be located on the second floor and will be led by Rachel Severson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montana and co-director of the NIH project.

Severson’s work focuses on how children understand others' internal states such as intentions, emotions, knowledge, and how children's understanding of others' minds affects their learning from others.

One particular question Severson is exploring is how children understand "personified technologies" such as robots and smart speakers and the potential benefits and implications of the technologies on children's development.

The idea for the community research lab came out of years of talks with UM faculty, local high schools and SpectrUM Discovery Area, which housed another NIH-funded project called the Big Sky Brain Project that focused on neuroscience education.

“We are all very excited to stay involved and help build on previous progress,” said Michael Kavanaugh, director of the McLaughlin Research Institute and professor of neuroscience at UM, who co-led the Big Sky Brain Project.

The new lab aims to make STEM education more accessible to all children in Missoula and surrounding areas and will eventually involve high school students in a research program where UM researchers serve as mentors.

“There will be real research studies happening in the community lab, and children and their families will be invited to participate,” Severson said. “Whether or not they participate in studies, the community will get to learn about the research questions we're investigating, how we approach answering these questions, and ultimately what we learn from our studies.”

Overall, the project aims to ensure that all Missoula children “get on the fast track” to meaningful careers and higher education, Truitt said.

“We want kids to go into that space, learn about their own health, get excited about science and potentially even find a lifetime passion,” Truitt said.

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