HELENA — On Thursday, educators from across the state came to Helena to collaborate and explore ways to expand STEM opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.
The Montana STEM Summit, now in its fourth year, brought together representatives from education, business, afterschool, government, and nonprofits.
“It’s an event that looks to bring folks together in one space to talk about STEM learning and how we can get more learning opportunities for our kids across the state,” explained Rachel Wanderscheid, Director of Montana Afterschool Alliance. “ That looks a lot different in Bozeman Montana compared to Pryor Montana, and so we try to connect people with resources so they can kind of build relationships together.”
The event was put on by the Montana Afterschool Alliance and the MSU Science Math Resource Center with support from MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development; GEAR UP; Million Girls Moonshot; Mott Foundation; Overdeck Family Foundation and Montana NSF EPSCoR.
Throughout the day attendees participated in a workshop, work session, and open house.
“At the center, we’re all interested in supporting our youth in Montana and giving them great opportunities. We’re such an amazing state, we need to work together to do that and this kind of summit allows that to happen,” said spectrUM Discovery Area Director Jessie Herbert-Meny.
During the work session, attendees shared their successes in bringing STEM activities to kids in the areas and discussed the challenges they faced.
“There was a lot of people there with a lot more experience than me,” Matt Backus with the Lewis and Clark Library told MTN. “I can see the future of STEM and I can see the struggles they face and all the ways they overcome those.”
One of the largest hurdles is how to find the money needed to support their programs.
“So I would say challenges across all of education is funding,” said Suzi Taylor, director of the Science Math Resource Center at MSU. “A lot of that is support for teachers and other staff members. It’s expensive to live in a lot of places in Montana.”
Taylor also noted even if educators want to attend further education opportunities like the Montana STEM Summit, staffing challenges can be a significant hurdle.
“We have a teacher shortage in a lot of our schools. It’s hard even to get a substitute if you want to go to professional development training,” Taylor noted. “So funding is a huge barrier and then a lot of people say transportation for young people o get to and from STEM programs is a really big issue.”
Some other topics of discussion at the summit were the need for engaging role models, opportunities to connect with businesses such as job shadowing, and more collaboration between schools and afterschool/informal education providers.
“So students can see STEM across everything they do,” Herbert-Meny told MTN. “Because science is everywhere and it’s just kind of letting everybody know when we’re learning and engaging, we’re engaging in science.”
According to 2021-2022 DATA from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, 65% of Montana Students are below proficient in Math, and 64% are considered below proficiency in Science.
Attendees told MTN STEM programs, such as afterschool and summer programs, can do wonders for kids who may be struggling in those subjects.
“So we see in the informal setting a lot of times kids who don’t feel connected to these subjects find ways to see themselves in potentially future careers, but just to understand why it’s applicable,” noted Wanderscheid.
Science, technology, engineering and math can be daunting subjects for many kids. But, according to the Montana STEM Summit attendees, a key part of the equation to get kids interested in STEM is to let them have fun with it. Once that happens, the kids start solving all the other variables a lot easier.