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Next Exit History students

Graduate students from the University of West Florida made a stop at the Hidden Lake Overlook at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park last weekend on their roadtrip for Next Exit History.

It’s usually the second or third question Dave Strohmaier gets.

You’re a venerable Missoula research company loading up one of those new-fangled smartphone apps with information that showcases the history and culture of more than 60,000 sites around the world.

For free.

How in the heck do you make money?

“That’s certainly the end game,” said Strohmaier, a former Missoula city councilman and senior project historian for Historical Research Associates of Missoula. “It’s the same way we’ve stayed in business for 40 years. Individual clients hire us to do research and develop interpretive content for them.”

The result might be a roadside interpretive panel, a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, or a coffee table book about the history of the U.S. Forest Service.

But in recent years the free, location-based mobile app called Next Exit History has exploded onto Strohmaier’s world and a lot of others.

It got even bigger when HRA and the Florida creators of Next Exit History landed a sweet gig with the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016. It’s making for one heck of a summer road trip for a class of graduate students from the University of West Florida.

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The 17 students and Patrick Moore, one of the app developers at the Pensacola university, breezed through Missoula last weekend midway through a journey to some 30 national park units.

They’re sightseeing and playing, to be sure, but the students have a job to do, too. Strohmaier said they’re meeting with park service staff and historians to create a History Hunters game on the Next Exit History app for national park visitors next year.

The game is a mix of geocaching, a growing Internet-based treasure hunt activity, and the National Parks Service’s Junior Ranger program, in which youngsters at a park receive a book to fill out and earn badges.

As Strohmaier described it, History Hunters players earn a virtual badge on their mobile device, answer a trivia question based on interpretation of a Next Exit site, then fulfill a scavenger hunt mission.

“You can’t just idly sit in a vehicle a thousand miles away to play,” he said. “You have to be at a site and move around to answer the questions. That’s what the students are doing, creating trivia and scavenger hunt programs.”

“I’m excited about it,” Strohmaier added. “Certainly, my 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son are attracted to games like this. It’s all the better if we can weave some educational components into it.”

Tessa Boddell, spokeswoman for Next Exit History, said the West Florida students’ trip started July 11 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It wound through Texas and Colorado to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. They were in Helena last week en route to Glacier National Park before reaching Missoula on Sunday.

Then it was off to a float trip on the Salmon River in Idaho. Come Friday, the class is scheduled to be at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, then will make its way down the Pacific Coast to Oregon and California before finishing in Las Vegas and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Before they left, they reached out to National Park Service staff for park information that has already been created. That will be integrated into the History Hunters game, as well as another Next Exit feature called Backpack, a collection of cultural or historic sites that are either geographically or thematically related.

Strohmaier said a good example of Backpacking was the addition of Next Exit sites a couple of weeks ago for the Missoula Marathon for runners and spectators to use.

It received a great response, he said. Besides a lot of measurable downloads, Next Exit History’s booth at the Missoula Marathon Expo was inundated with runners from all over the country interested in soaking in the cultural aspects that the app provided.

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Strohmaier is pleased with the national and international impact the Missoula company is making through Next Exit History, but he’s equally proud of several local projects. He’s working with local historians in Mineral County to research 30 historical sites throughout the county for a Backpack project that should be ready this fall.

The Bitter Root Economic Development District helped secure a state digital tourism grant of about $40,000.

“As part of that, we’re developing a custom website for the Mineral County Historical Society to ratchet up their digital footprint,” he said.

It’ll include videos and site postings, with the idea of drawing travelers off Interstate 90 at the “next exit” to explore and, not incidentally, spend money in the county.

“How many folks go sailing down the interstate between Missoula and Spokane just trying to get through the county with no idea there are some super interesting points of interest there?” he said.

The Next Exit History app was developed through the University of West Florida public history program eight years ago, the dark ages for mobile application technology.

“As is the case with much of the technology and development that arise out of a university setting, there comes a point where the academic environment can only take an idea or concept so far,” said Strohmaier, who has become project director of Next Exit. “That’s where HRA has come into play the last couple of years.”

“One thing we really pride ourselves on is all the content is vetted by historians,” said Boddell. “We work with Historical Research Associates, so everything is accurate.”

History is all around us, and there’s a never-ending supply waiting to be interpreted.

“You look at New York City and you know the typical history of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, but there’s always more that’s relevant to you and me,” Boddell said. “We’ve recently added the birthplace of hip-hop. We may not always be looking back 100 years. We’re looking at things that are very influential to our culture today. We think those are sites worth adding.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian