Innovate HS

University of Montana freshman Josh Watkins, left, talks with Miles Partain, a junior at Sentinel High School, during an event Friday at UM focused on teaching high school students to apply critical thinking skills.

It's been said that Rome wasn't built in a day. Similarly, it's going to take more than a day to solve the world's problems.

But that didn't stop high schoolers from trying to solve — in under 20 minutes Friday — some of greatest issues facing modern society.

During the University of Montana's InnovateHS event, organized by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, 288 students from different high schools collaborated to brainstorm solutions to complex problems such as gun violence, single-use plastics and high suicide rates.

"We're getting kids from such different backgrounds to get ideas together and actually have a conversation about it," said Deena Mansour, interim executive director of the Mansfield Center.

High school juniors and seniors from Sentinel, Big Sky, Hellgate and Willard visited UM on Friday for a day filled with discussions focused on fostering innovation by teaching students to apply critical thinking skills with creativity, collaboration and analysis.

Although the students had limited time to brainstorm solutions, they came up with impressive responses.

One group of students tasked with coming up with ways to improve mental health care and decrease suicide rates among youth, started by thinking about contributing factors.

"Definitely put down your school environment," said Morgan Murphy a junior at Sentinel. "Like whether you feel judged by your peers, bullying, how many friends you have, comparing yourself to others, jealousy."

"OK, so do you think we can do anything to help people feel less alone?" said Josh Watkins, a UM freshman who helped facilitate the group's discussion.

Murphy suggested establishing support groups in schools. "You could advertise it and say, 'This group of people is going to be in the lunchroom for these two days and anyone who needs help or just wants to come sit and have lunch with them could do that."

"Part of it is just getting people to talk to each other," said Miles Partain, a junior at Sentinel.

The sessions were designed to supplement the Missoula County Public Schools high school curriculum, which focuses on ways to use creativity to learn and establish critical thinking skills through student-centered learning.

The event also aimed to make students feel comfortable on campus.

"This shouldn't be a mysterious environment," Mansour said. "We wanted to bring students to campus so they feel like this is their campus."

Students took their list of solutions and formulated their best into a response, which they posted on panels throughout the University Center Ballroom.

One group's response to the question "How can we save lives from gun violence while protecting gun rights?" read "To own a gun should be similar to owning a car. This would include education, similar to a hunter/gun safety course. This also includes containment education for safe gun storage, a written exam, physical exam and a performance exam showing that one could properly handle a gun."

Another group suggested providing mental health support resources for people to contact when they feel unsafe.

The students didn't jump right into tackling the big problems. They started the day listening to innovation-themed talks from Mansour, UM President Seth Bodnar and Micah Larsen, the owner of Apis Communication Science who talked about Snapchat and how algorithms can be and are used to persuade and influence people.

UM professors then led discussions with groups of students on topics based on students' interests that included: "Fact and Fiction in Social Media" with Dennis Swibold from the School of Journalism, "The Skin We’re In: White Supremacy is on the Rise" with Tobin Miller Shearer of the Department of African American Studies, and "Tales from UM Student Archaeological Ventures in Missoula" with Kelly Dixon of UM's Department of Anthropology.

The groups required students to become active participants in conversations about how innovation applies to their lives and to the issues that most concern them.

During one session, called "What Does Climate Action Look Like?" with Steve Schwarze from the Department of Communication Studies, taught students various strategies to drum up interest in causes.

Similar to the larger session, students worked together to think of ways to address issues they face in their daily lives.

One group, challenged to find a way to reduce carbon emissions at their school, proposed charging students for parking spots as an incentive to get more students to walk, bike and carpool.

Mansour said they would like to hold the event biannually and expand to student populations outside Missoula to serve students from rural areas and reservations.

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