BOZEMAN — Trysten Hannon dips a cotton swab into a paper cup filled with salty water then methodically touches the swab to different points on her tongue. She carefully considers each point until she hits the spot where the taste is the strongest.
“I taste it most right in the middle,” said Hannon, who will be a sixth-grader at Browning’s Napi School in the fall.
Hannon and 14 other students in Christa Merzdorf’s “The Science of Food” workshop spent Tuesday morning learning about their taste buds and how their bodies process sugars. Other lessons for the week have the students growing salt crystals then using microscopes to observe them, learning the cell types of vegetables, preserving food, and making jam, ice cream, butter and bread, while learning the science behind the processes.
The class is among more than a dozen offered at Montana State University’s five-day Explore Earth and Space Science Camp, which is run by MSU Academic Technology and Outreach and sponsored by the NASA Northwest Earth and Space Science Pipeline.
The hands-on workshop that combines body systems and the properties of food was created by Merzdorf, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. Merzdorf, who has also taught courses in MSU’s Peaks and Potential camp for many years, recently changed her curriculum to challenge the students and herself with new topics.
“This is my first year doing the science of food,” Merzdorf said. “It has been a lot of fun.”
This is the third year of the Explore Camp, which encourages Montana middle-school students to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math.
“This camp is designed to inspire kids to become future scientists and engineers,” said Jamie Cornish, outreach specialist for MSU’s Academic Technology and Outreach. “We want to ignite the campers’ imaginations and give them a deeper understanding of science that is relevant to their lives.”
The camp is free for the students who were selected to attend through an application process consisting of a short questionnaire and two adult references. Emphasis was placed on kids who may have not attended other STEM camps or had access to any MSU opportunity, those from low-income families, those who live in rural areas and those who may become the first in their family to attend college.
This year, 80 middle-schoolers from 28 communities are attending the camp, including campers from rural areas and campers and counselors representing every reservation in the state, Cornish said. Among those are 12 campers from Libby — Allison Beaty, Peyton Geer, Gabe Gier, Paislee MacDonald, Vincent Moore, Alyssa Nordwick, Jason Quintanilla, Trenton Riddel, Macie Sichting, Rachelle Swetman, Kadin Torrens and Jaden Ueland — and four from Troy — Silas Garrison, Marcus Hermes, Braxton Ledbeter-Yeadon and Sadie Peterson.
“There are two more years left on the grant and we hope to extend it many years into the future,” Cornish said.
Julius Chavez, a Crow Indian who is a seventh-grader at Hardin Middle School, was one of 18 students who signed up for the “Creative Natives: Think Indian” workshop designed by Richard White, project coordinator for MSU’s Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity.
“I signed up for this class because I wanted to learn more about our (culture),” said Chavez, who also selected workshops about extreme gravity and the magma beneath Yellowstone Lake.
White explained that the aim of the class is to recognize, re-center and highlight Indigenous science, inquiry and observation.
“Indigenous people all over the world have their own unique, robust and comprehensive scientific understandings which come from our environments, our creation stories, our landscapes and ecology, our songs, our ceremonies, our language and from our community,” said White, of the Navajo Nation. “Too often, western education and science can compartmentalize knowledge, such as physics, biology, mathematics, architecture, communication, health, etc. Within the Indigenous world view, these areas of knowledge are interconnected, interdependent, and necessary to understand how to live a balanced and harmonious existence.”
In Wednesday’s class, campers learned of the importance of plants to Native culture and health.
“My gram would rub peppermint on us to keep off the insects,” said Melody Small, a Browning High School science teacher who led the day’s lesson.
Small spoke of the Blackfeet contribution to medicine through the use of willow bark as a pain reliever similar to aspirin. She also described ways Natives have used plants and herbs for centuries for medicine and during ceremonies.
She also shared her grandmother’s advice that if she was having a bad day she should talk to her plants, tying in the wisdom with a plant’s need for carbon dioxide, which humans expel when breathing out.
“Not only is talking to plants therapeutic,” Small said, “it gives the plants the carbon dioxide it needs for photosynthesis.”
Students then planted seeds in clear cups containing soil. Chavez chose a mixture of echinacea, sweet peppers and other flowers for his cup, carefully picking up the seeds and using his finger to push them to the right depth, either to his first knuckle or second knuckle, depending on the seed size.
Both Chavez and Hannon agree that staying on the MSU campus is a highlight of the camp.
“I like that it feels like I’m actually in college and staying in the college dorms,” said Hannon, who also selected workshops in rocket-making and one that combines art with the concept of infinity.
She said she wanted to come to camp for a few reasons.
“I wanted to make friends, and for my career I want to be an engineer,” she said. “I’m good at everything in the word ‘STEM.’”