The University of Montana hosted a two-week camp for 19 Native American middle-school students lasting through the end of June, with faculty leading students into science, technology, and math fields.

The majority of students came from the Blackfeet Reservation and other students came from the Navajo Nation. They are the first group to attend the Montana American Indian Math and Science Program, or MT-AIMS.

“Here in Montana, Native American students statistically score 20% below non-native students. So what we’re hoping to do is reach out to them at an early age and expose them to areas that they may not have known even existed,” said Aaron Thomas, the director of the program and associate professor of chemistry at UM.

When organizing MT-AIMS, Thomas structured it similar to the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. Started in 1995, the program draws in middle and high school students from more than 100 of Alaska’s communities. The students who stay with it through high school can earn up to 50 credits toward a bachelor's degree before their first year at a college or university.

Thomas, also the director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education, and Melanie Magee of Browning received training on the Alaska model in 2018 as part of the initiative by the National Science Foundation to bring the program’s success to other parts of the nation.

“For myself, neither of my parents went to college, so there was a huge learning curve for me when I went to Carroll College,” said Magee, the GEAR UP coordinator for Browning Middle School and one of the camp counselors for MT-AIMS.

“What’s missing in a lot of Native American communities is what I call ‘college knowledge.’ At least with this program and GEAR UP, they can get a little bit of experience at a university,” she said.

Since the start of the 1999 school year, GEAR UP has provided tutoring, financial aid information and supplementary learning for low-income middle and high school students in Montana.

MT-AIMS, funded through the UM Foundation, also partners with the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences and others that have provided faculty members and equipment for the students. For the next few years, the program will host only middle school students. After that, Thomas plans on expanding to high school students and offering courses that will earn them college credit.

“Just like ANSEP, the goal is have a program that runs from sixth grade through graduate school. But they had 20 years to develop, so I know it's going to take a little while,” Thomas said.

The team supervising the inaugural group consists of Thomas and four counselors, all of them Native Americans.

The students in MT-AIMS stayed on campus while enrolled in the program, sleeping in residence halls and eating at the Food Zoo. Counselors also took them on tours downtown and on trails in the area, including a hike up Mt. Sentinel.

During the first three days, Thomas walked the students through building a computer. Each student got their own tower and components to install. Once they had a functioning computer, Thomas allowed the 19 students to take their completed work home with them on the condition that they pass Algebra 1 by the end of their first year of high school.

For Tuesday’s class, the students spent the morning competing in a math wrangle, with teams trying to find solutions to eight questions and presenting them to professors from the math department. After lunch, they reviewed specimens caught in the Clark Fork River the previous day. Some of the favorite catches included a stonefly, a crawfish and a leech.

“We’re trying to show them that these new opportunities are available, but we’re also trying to show them that science has always been a part of their culture, even if it wasn’t called that,” said Stephen Crane, a camp counselor who will also be working toward a graduate degree at UM in the fall.

“Where I come from, we have dinosaur tracks, and the Navajo have stories of giant lizards that walked the planet. Also, with all of the medicine that’s been produced in Native Americans societies, all of that is science and it’s ingrained in our culture,” he said.

Next summer, UM will host a new group of students for two weeks, along with a separate week-long follow-up for those returning from this year. Those interested in contributing to MT-AIMS can contact Aaron Thomas or the UM Foundation.

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