The Bitterroot Valley Learning Ecosystem
By Beth Covitt, Vic Mortimer, Nick Wethington, and Nathalie Wolfram
On a Saturday afternoon last May in Hamilton, Montana, 150 people gathered in a college gymnasium for the Bitterroot Maker Fair. At tables around the room, student educators from the University of Montana (UM) spectrUM Discovery Area guided K–12 students and their families in activities such as jigsaw-puzzle creation and forced-perspective photography. A group of students clustered around a robotics station where they programmed Cubelets; many were already familiar with the modular robotic blocks from in-school making and tinkering experiences co-led by spectrUM educators and local K–12 teachers. Students from Hamilton Middle School’s SciGirls Code Club displayed the robots they had created at the school library, and the middle school Science Olympiad team led interactive chemistry demonstrations. Down the hall, visitors toured the Bitterroot FabLab, where they explored virtual reality challenges and learned about rapid-prototyping technologies available for use by members.
The Maker Fair is one programming highlight of a vibrant STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning ecosystem in the rural Bitterroot Valley, where spectrUM, K–12 schools, public libraries, community organizations, and a community advisory group collaborate to engage students with local education and career pathways. All year round, both in school and out, the ecosystem supports a web of interconnected STEM learning experiences designed to close opportunity and achievement gaps and foster a homegrown STEM workforce.
Based in nearby Missoula, spectrUM serves as a backbone for this collective work and delivers making and tinkering programming designed to promote essential education and workforce skills such as persistence, creativity, teamwork, and communication. spectrUM has partnered with schools in the Bitterroot for a decade to deliver STEM programming, but when we adopted a more deliberately collaborative, ecosystem-minded approach, we were able to evolve to create locally responsive STEM programming, broaden participation, and build capacity in local schools and community organizations. This article shares some of the key design elements that we have identified for fostering multisector collaboration to support a healthy STEM learning ecosystem that meets the unique needs of rural communities.
As a community-focused science center based at a university that serves a large, sparsely populated state, spectrUM engages more people outside our walls than we do in our brick-and-mortar museum. To engage students in rural and tribal communities statewide, spectrUM’s Science on Wheels program transforms school gyms and public libraries into pop-up science museums. Regionally, spectrUM partners with communities to codesign STEM programming that responds to local needs and priorities. In the Bitterroot Valley, our partners are particularly focused on creating pathways for K–12 students into locally robust sectors such as health care and biotech, but also into fields such as entrepreneurship, manufacturing, construction, and the trades, which require STEM literacy but not necessarily a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
The Bitterroot is economically diverse, with major employers such as the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories and GlaxoSmithKline operating alongside over 1,400 small businesses (10 employees or fewer) in a county of just over 42,000 people. Forty-four percent of new jobs in the county are created when new businesses open (Ravalli County Targeted Economic Development District Plan 2015). Innovation and entrepreneurship play a vital role in Montana’s economy as a whole; for two recent years, the Kauffman Index ranked the state number one in startup activity among the 25 less populous states.
Yet persistent inequality and social immobility prevent many K–12 students in the Bitterroot from advancing into STEM-related career pathways. In Hamilton and Corvallis, two communities that form the hub of this STEM learning ecosystem, over 20% of residents live in poverty, and the median income is less than 60% of what it is statewide. Anecdotally, spectrUM’s partners and community advisory group report that many K–12 students are unaware of local opportunities for fulfilling careers, including those attainable with a two-year degree or certificate.
With funding from two family foundations committed to closing these gaps, spectrUM convened a Bitterroot community advisory group in 2017 to set a collective vision, codesign spectrUM’s local programming, and ultimately build local STEM education capacity in the community. The group’s members included partners spectrUM had collaborated with in the Bitterroot for years, as well as representatives from schools and organizations that our partners identified as community assets and STEM education leaders.
Today, the Bitterroot STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) Advisory Group includes K–12 teachers and principals, two high-school students, and representatives from the local library, county museum, and hospital. The group’s monthly meetings create space to cross-pollinate ideas and spark new collaborations, as well as to develop and refine all of spectrUM’s programming in the Bitterroot, which currently includes:
Although evaluation of the Bitterroot STEM Learning Ecosystem has been designed to provide both formative and summative findings, greater emphasis is placed on formative evaluation, with the goal of facilitating ongoing program refinement. Evaluation questions focus on eliciting the experiences and perceptions of both the ecosystem partners (e.g., spectrUM personnel, library and other museum personnel, K–12 educators and administrators) and the ecosystem audiences (e.g., families attending Summer of Science events). Combinations of interviews and surveys are used to collect data, and each year a report is written to (1) articulate successes and challenges associated with the ecosystem collaboration and programming, and (2) provide suggestions for changes, which emerge from evaluation responses. Further, each year, evaluation questions are updated and revised to realign with the most current issues and questions facing the ecosystem. A guiding principle of the evaluation is to make sure that voices representing the spectrum of project stakeholders are accurately and adequately represented. Each year, we have conducted interviews with representatives from the various partner organizations, including administrators, educators, and coordinators. We elicit feedback from participating children with short, child-accessible surveys. In addition, we elicit feedback from adults who bring children to events through both surveys collected at all events and interviews conducted with a small purposive sample each year. This principle has helped make the evaluation a critical tool for shaping growth and changes within the ecosystem, making it responsive to both partners and community members. Through this partnership, and with careful and deliberate use of insights from evaluation and direct experience, we have developed the following design elements for a healthy rural STEM learning ecosystem.
Drawing on Traphagen and Traill’s (2014) strategies for fostering an effective STEM learning ecosystem, our collective work in the Bitterroot scaffolds STEM learning experiences across formal and informal settings. This structure encourages progressive engagement in which students encounter experiences that spark their curiosity and opportunities to engage in deeper, more sustained learning.
Although these two broad types of STEM learning—the spark and the deeper dive—sometimes correspond to informal versus formal learning settings, respectively, we have found that our collaborative approach blurs this distinction. For example, spectrUM’s in-school making and tinkering experiences, cofacilitated by teachers, effectively turn classrooms and school libraries into pop-up makerspaces where students are encouraged to adopt the maker mindset and engage in open-ended, playful design activities—such as building bouncy rockets and zip-line racers—often found in informal, out-of-school settings. Our evaluation has found that these hybrid formal–informal experiences create on-ramps into STEM for many students who have not previously identified themselves as academically successful. At Corvallis Middle School, fifth-grade teacher Amanda Bestor says, “Students who may not always shine in a traditional math or writing lesson can show knowledge in a different way and often excel at making and tinkering. It builds confidence in their work and their ability to work through a challenge.”
Although activities designed to spark curiosity and excitement can be an end in themselves, teachers often develop them into deeper, more sustained experiences that incorporate inquiry-based and other formal approaches to STEM learning. Bestor says that cofacilitating making and tinkering activities with spectrUM has influenced her teaching across the curriculum; when developing new lessons, she now also looks at “how students collaborated during the building activity. Did they incorporate other members’ ideas? Did they go back to their original design and improve upon it?” The payoff of this approach, she says, manifests in students’ perseverance, which transfers into other types of learning throughout the school day.
Blending formal and informal STEM experiences also engages students as leaders and near-peer mentors, an outcome we did not anticipate at the outset of this collaborative work. At Corvallis Middle School, a group of girls who had participated in making and tinkering in their classroom approached the school librarian with an idea for a club that would meet during recess. The “STEM 5” launched their club last school year, developing their skills as mentors and peer educators while engaging a wider student audience in making and tinkering. By design, community events such as the Bitterroot Maker Fair and the Summer of Science also encourage students involved in informal STEM at school—whether through spectrUM’s making and tinkering programming or through clubs such as Science Olympiad, the SciGirls Code Club, or the Keystone afterschool program—to facilitate activities with their peers and community members.
A locally responsive, community-based approach takes time and willingness to adapt. With our advisory group, spectrUM engages Bitterroot schools and community organizations as partners rather than as clients in order to build mutually beneficial, trusting relationships. These relationships are vital in maximizing the impact of our programming by, for example, engaging with children at summer free-meal sites and free or reduced-cost summer and afterschool programming. At these sites, we have found through program evaluation that we reach students whose parents are unable to travel the farther distance to Missoula for STEM enrichment, even if it is offered for free.
Crucially, our approach to rural engagement uses an asset rather than a deficit model. We recognize that communities in the Bitterroot have unique resources and assets that we can collectively leverage. In spectrUM’s making and tinkering programming in the Bitterroot, students regularly draw on their personal funds of knowledge from experiences such as hunting, setting and repairing traps, and fixing cars (Moje et al. 2001). Accordingly, one teacher was inspired by spectrUM activities to develop an “animal trap” activity in which students create traps designed to capture an Ozobot, a small, line-following robot that is programmable with color codes. In another activity, students visited the school library to research a local insect; gathered materials such as rocks, leaves, and sticks from outside; and created a model of their insect using the hot glue guns that have become a fixture of making and tinkering activities at the school library.
In many rural Bitterroot communities, children also have free range to travel to our programming by bicycle, often unaccompanied by adults. In Darby, Montana, we situate our summer events in the town park, adjacent to a community free-meal site and the public library, creating a one-stop shop for children. Recognizing these assets and aligning our program design and delivery with them helps scaffold students’ experiences and make connections between STEM and their everyday lives.
Meeting our partners where they are—and where they want to be—has been essential in our collaboration. Some partners have interest in and capacity for playing an active role in codesigning programming. The Ravalli County Museum and Historical Society, for instance, has curated exhibits that complement spectrUM’s STEM exhibits and has incorporated activities developed by spectrUM and Rocky Mountain Laboratories into their existing Saturday STEAM programming.
Other partners are able to commit a more moderate effort to our collaboration. These partnerships can be highly effective as long as partners are mutually clear about expectations. One library we work with does not have space to host a full exhibit but was excited to host drop-in spectrUM programming. Another library was interested in embedding high-tech experiences, such as 3-D printing for demonstrations and spectrUM-led activities, but did not have the staff capacity to engage in professional development and take on this programming themselves. In both cases, we collaborated effectively and, as indicated in our evaluation, maintained mutually beneficial partnerships by identifying areas of alignment and respecting our partners’ stated needs, interests, and capacity.
Prioritizing long-term capacity-building within the community, even as spectrUM remains a partner in program delivery, has resulted in STEM programming that is locally relevant and far more sustainable than if spectrUM were to take a more siloed, less collaborative approach. For example, in 2016, the national SciGirls organization invited spectrUM to implement a new girls’ coding club. We were excited about the opportunity, but rather than incorporating it into our own educational programming, we partnered with Hamilton Middle School to embed the club in their school library. Hamilton’s middle-school and elementary librarians received robust professional development, curriculum materials, and start-up funding from Twin Cities PBS SciGirls for Hamilton’s first SciGirls Code Club, with spectrUM recruiting STEM role models from the UM as a supplement. Following the club’s pilot year, the school has fundraised locally to continue the club long-term and to affiliate with the national Girls Who Code organization as well.
One essential role we have identified in our ecosystem is a central project manager who facilitates interorganizational communications and coordinates logistics. To use a cell system analogy, this person serves as the nucleus for collaboration activities.
The coordinator does not necessarily have to be the same person throughout the multiple years of the partnership, as long as there is consistently a person who can effectively fulfill this role, and, importantly, has the time and resources needed to do so. For organizations not located in the community being served, it might be worthwhile to designate (and pay) a liaison within the community who can help network with and recruit new partners and support implementation with a highly local perspective.
spectrUM’s engagement has always included mobile programming, which is essential for reaching communities in our large, rural state. Influenced by “Just Add Science,” the Science Festival Alliance’s program to embed science in existing community events, spectrUM’s Bitterroot Summer of Science was deliberately designed to drop STEM exhibits and programming into existing community gathering places, including not only fixed sites such as the county museum and public libraries, but also seasonal events such as the weekly farmers’ market, the county fair, free-meal programs, and community picnics and celebrations. By leveraging existing community gathering places and events, we are able to reach audiences that might not otherwise seek out or feel welcome in traditional science museum settings.
Yet initially, our evaluation suggested that even by embedding at well-attended community sites, we were still not going local enough. In the first iteration of Summer of Science, from 2015 to 2017, each summer’s programming was anchored in one community: at the Ravalli County Museum & Historical Society in Hamilton in 2015, at the Darby Community Public Library in 2016, and at the North Valley Public Library in Stevensville in 2017. This static, intensive approach—with educator-led programming offered weekly throughout the summer and self-guided exhibit installations—created a sense of cohort among children and families who regularly attended. But parents and partners also expressed disappointment that the programming would move to a different community the following summer. Consistently, our evaluation indicated that parents could not or would not travel to other towns in the Bitterroot for other Summer of Science events. Barriers included parents’ work commitments, driving costs, and lack of transportation.
In response, beginning in summer 2018, we refined our approach to be hyper-local. Summer of Science now roves up and down the Valley; in summer 2019, we reached seven sites in four communities over the course of 18 visits. With this more agile approach, we shifted away from large exhibits toward more mobile activities that are easily transported between communities. To ensure that children and families still know where and when to find us, we ramped up our marketing with postcards, a mailed advertisement, posts on the local online events calendar, and signage and small anchor exhibits at community hubs such as the Ravalli County Museum and Historical Society. Because of our strong partnerships with K–12 teachers, librarians, and our advisory group, Summer of Science also benefits from strong word-of-mouth marketing by trusted community members.
The results of this shift toward hyper-local engagement have been striking. Parents have consistently reported to the evaluator that they appreciate having some events in their own community during the summer, even if Summer of Science events occur only monthly instead of weekly. Families share that while the more frequent events were nice, they are not necessarily missed, because partner organizations provide other, complementary events. For example, in June 2019, Stevensville’s North Valley Public Library offered youth science programming—beyond spectrUM’s Summer of Science events—related to insect life cycles, adaptations, and plant seed engineering. The library also offered nonscience youth programming such as reading clubs, yoga classes, and telling traditional stories from the Séliš (Salish) people of Montana.. Events such as these are generally offered without cost to community members.
By working with spectrUM and other regional partners, youth service–providing organizations such as libraries in the Bitterroot have become summer hubs that provide so much more than the opportunity to borrow a book. In essence, the Bitterroot learning ecosystem has turned the catchphrase “if you build it, they will come” on its head. We have found instead that if you come to rural communities, they can and will leverage diverse opportunities to build rich and vibrant networks of youth development programming.
Building capacity in the community not only helps ensure sustainability, but it also gives the community the agency to take programming in new directions and make it locally relevant. The benefits of capacity-building are especially evident in spectrUM’s partnership with K–12 schools in Hamilton and Corvallis, where teachers cofacilitate making and tinkering activities alongside spectrUM’s making and tinkering program manager Nick Wethington, who provides robust, ongoing professional development. In the last three years of this partnership, over 40 teachers, school librarians, and informal educators have participated in an annual, two-day Making and Tinkering Institute. Led by Wethington and modeled in part on the work of the Museum of Discovery’s Discovery Network in Arkansas, the institute provides a hands-on introduction to making and tinkering activities and has brought in guest facilitators from the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Museum of Discovery, and UM’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences. Teachers receive stipends for their participation, as well as making and tinkering supplies and spectrUM’s Making & Tinkering Cookbook, which was codeveloped with K–12 teachers. The Making and Tinkering Institute is a chance for the participants to take a very deep dive into the activities facilitated by Wethington in classrooms, collaborate with professional peers from districts and schools other than their own, and share best practices. Attendees from prior years serve as peer mentors, sharing their experience facilitating the activities and adapting them to support other areas of their teaching. The institute also creates a space to workshop new activities, engaging teachers as partners in shaping and refining them.
Throughout the school year, Wethington cofacilitates making and tinkering activities with teachers in their classrooms and school libraries. Daly Elementary principal Nate Lant characterizes this approach as “I do, we do, you do.” First, Wethington leads professional development for teachers and directly facilitates activities with K–12 students (“I do”); then Wethington cofacilitates with teachers (“we do”); then teachers adopt the activities into their own curriculum (“you do”). As previous years’ teacher cohorts complete this sequence, they continue serving as peer mentors for a new cohort. This approach is consistent with the learning theory of cognitive apprenticeship, which involves phases of modeling, coaching, and fading (Collins, Brown, and Holum 1991). Cognitive apprenticeship has been shown to support individuals who begin as novices in a complex skill in developing mastery over time.
As school capacity grows, spectrUM’s Making and Tinkering Institute has also evolved to be increasingly collaborative and draw on participating teachers’ and principals’ growing expertise and sense of ownership. At the 2018 institute, teachers and librarians from multiple school districts engaged in a facilitated discussion about how to embed a physical makerspace into their school in a way that meets each school’s unique needs and characteristics. The conversation also included a brainstorm about how to leverage existing resources to achieve the goal of deeply embedding the making ethos into the school’s daily curriculum.
These capacity-building efforts have also sparked new collaboration between school districts. Beginning in fall 2019, a multidistrict Peer Learning Community co-organized by a Corvallis teacher and spectrUM brought together teachers from across grade levels and districts. Through regular meetings that will count toward professional development requirements, teachers will share ideas and practices for weaving making and tinkering into other areas of their teaching. Although building on spectrUM’s programming and professional development, the Peer Learning Community is organized by and for the local schools. Schools’ and teachers’ commitment to peer learning and mentorship is vital to the sustainability of the STEM learning ecosystem. Although spectrUM has built strong relationships with family foundations that are dedicated to our success and supportive of innovative STEM education practices, it is ultimately the teachers, principals, school librarians, and informal educators in the community who are building the knowledge and expertise to weave the maker mindset—and making and tinkering practices—permanently into their teaching and programming.
Trusting and codesigning with our partners sparked collaborations that took on a life of their own and evolved in ways we never anticipated at the outset of our grant funding. spectrUM’s collaboration with Corvallis Middle School’s library provides one representative example.
From the start of our partnership, Corvallis Middle School’s staff imagined a making and tinkering program that would be closely tied to the school’s curriculum and housed in the library. In fact, Vic Mortimer, the school librarian, and Rich Durgin, the school principal, had already begun discussing the possibility of establishing a makerspace in the library when spectrUM asked whether Corvallis would be interested in participating in a newly funded making and tinkering project. The offer met a need that the school had already identified, if not yet fully articulated.
The making and tinkering program that spectrUM brought to the first group of Corvallis Middle School fifth graders quickly became a favorite activity and sparked a degree of envy in older students who had not had the opportunity to work with bouncy rockets, zip line racers, Ozobots, or forced-perspective photography. Other teachers noticed the high level of student engagement that the program generated and began to ask about using some of the activities and materials in their own classrooms. Sixth- and seventh-grade language arts teachers, for example asked about using light play equipment for storytelling in their classrooms. Building on the original 50-minute light play activity that spectrUM cofacilitated with teachers, the librarian and language arts teachers from older grades designed more elaborate assignments that required the construction of shadow puppets and two or three full class periods to plan, construct, and perform short plays. A seventh-grade social studies teacher worked with the librarian to create an activity in which students used light play to retell American Indian origin stories, a creative approach that supported this teacher in fulfilling Montana’s constitutional mandate of Indian Education for All. In the high school, a science teacher asked his students to use the light boxes to tell the story of a particular species of native fish. Across the grade levels, students filmed their peers’ presentations, incorporating digital storytelling into their learning experience.
With the library as a school hub for making and tinkering, other teachers from all grade levels and disciplines also began using materials from the collaboration to enhance their existing curriculum. The eighth-grade science teacher consulted with Wethington on how to build shake tables that students could use to test how different buildings hold up in earthquake conditions. The sixth-grade science teacher repurposed clay used for a squishy circuits activity for student projects involving atoms; later, she used circuit blocks made two years earlier for a unit on electricity, as well as other supplies for a “Newton car” design project. An eighth-grade math teacher developed a version of a “zip line Barbie” experiment in which teams of students planned and tested zip lines. The aim was to create an angle of descent steep enough “not to bore Barbie and not so steep that it would kill her.” The activity included budgeting for construction costs and calculating the angle of the zip line and the speed of descent. The activity took place in the library, where the librarian could assist.
More ideas are in development. Students in eighth-grade language arts will be creating podcasts and videos for book projects. In fifth grade, the librarian and a classroom teacher will begin “genius hour” activities, which blend STEM, project-based learning, and making and tinkering by asking students to research topics of interest and develop hands-on projects they can share with others.
Through this collaboration with spectrUM, the school library became a space where students can, in addition to checking out a book, develop the persistence and curiosity to make useful and beautiful things. Students get to know Mortimer, the librarian, who now leads many of the STEM labs, as students and teachers refer to the making and tinkering sessions, and many hang out during lunch and recess. Mortimer himself noted that, as someone who studied English in college, he sees the value of making and tinkering activities for pushing both students and teachers to expand their comfort zones.
Recognizing that each community is unique, we do not expect that every approach that works in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley will succeed elsewhere. However, largely because the design elements have a strong focus on adaptability to place, we have found that these lessons learned in the Bitterroot often can transfer and provide insights for enriching our engagement in other rural and tribal communities:
As our Bitterroot learning ecosystem continues to grow and evolve, so too might these findings, which we offer as design elements rather than a rigid formula. With a hyper-local, community-engaged, asset-based approach, the Bitterroot Valley of Montana provides one vivid and thriving example of what a high-quality STEM learning ecosystem can look like, and of what it can accomplish.
spectrUM Discovery Area and our community partners are grateful to the Jane S. Heman Foundation and the Martin Family Foundation for their commitment to funding STEM education and career pathways–building in the Bitterroot.
Beth Covitt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is head of science education research and evaluation at spectrUM Discovery Area at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. Vic Mortimer (email@example.com) is school librarian for Corvallis Middle School in Corvallis, Montana. Nick Wethington (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the making and tinkering program manager for spectrUM in Missoula, Montana. Nathalie Wolfram (email@example.com) is director of the Broader Impacts Group at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.
Collins, A., J.S. Brown, and A. Holum. 1991. Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator 15 (3): 6–11.
Moje, E. B., T. Collazo, R. Carrillo, and R.W. Marx. 2001. “Maestro, what is ‘quality’?” Language, literacy, and discourse in project‐based science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38 (4): 469–98.
Ravalli County Economic Authority. 2015. Comprehensive development plan (draft). https://ravalli.us/DocumentCenter/View/2020/Ravalli-County-TEDD—-Comprehensive-Development-Plan.
Traphagen, K., and S. Traill. 2014. How cross-sector collaborations are advancing STEM learning. Washington, DC: Noyce Foundation. https://stemecosystems.org/resource/how-cross-sector-collaborations-are-advancing-stem-learning.