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Meet 2024 MLC Scholar Aika Lanes

The Montana Learning Center is pleased to announce 2024 MLC Scholar, Aika Lanes, a high school junior from Bozeman, Mont. Lanes has been attending MLC camps and outreach events since middle school, when she met executive director Ryan Hannahoe at the MT Tech Regional Science and Engineering Fair in Butte. Her award-winning experiment, “The Martian Garden,” examined plant growth in simulated Martian soil, and caught Hannahoe’s eye. He encouraged her to sign up for camp at the MLC, and she promptly enrolled in a Lego robotics session. Since then, her passion for STEM fields has flourished, and she continuously advocates for other girls and minorities to pursue STEM fields.

Lanes founded and directs STEAM Ready, an outreach program to connect teachers and students, particularly in rural areas, with broader educational resources. The student-led group offers online Q&A sessions with professionals in different STEM fields and careers, and builds platforms for teachers to share free lesson plans. The group develops science activities for things like National Tree Week, which focuses on lessons pertaining to trees’ importance in our ecosystem, or having students build a robotic hand using straws and string, to learn about how tendons work.

She is an active participant in Million Girls Moonshot, an initiative to recruit girls into after-school STEM programs. The initial goal was to include one million girls by 2025, but with a current membership of 1.5 million, they have long since surpassed that goal, and aren’t slowing down. Million Girls Moonshot is led by its Flight Crew, with leaders selected from each state, and Lanes was the first student accepted from Montana. “It’s a great community of other girls in STEM, and it’s an amazing organization to be a part of,” Lanes said.

As one of the top three graduates of the Montana Aerospace Scholars, or MAS, Lanes was chosen for an all-expenses paid trip to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, as part of an ongoing partnership with the Montana Learning Center. “The trip was amazing, and we could see what kind of research and activities they do there; it’s definitely one of my top options for college applications next year,” she said.

Her MAS experience was life changing. “Montana Aerospace Scholars ultimately made me know that I want to go into engineering, and it helped solidify my fascination with space. It confirmed my interest in bioastronautics, which involves life support systems. On the International Space Station, it includes space suits, water recovery programs, and things of that nature.”

“The Montana Learning Center has meant so much to me,” Lanes said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity. It makes STEM and learning so much more fun and engaging. School puts you through the textbook experience, but being able to go to MLC offers a lot of different opportunities to actually engage with the material and connect with learning. It fuels your curiosity. There’s just a great community of people through MLC who are there to support you as you chase your dreams.”

Montana Learning Center Scholars of 2022

MLC Scholar Aspen McKee!

The Montana Learning Center at Canyon Ferry Lake near Helena is the state’s premier summer science camp. Award-winning science teachers journey to the MLC every summer to encourage youth to become lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and action-takers. Camps offer exposure to a wide variety of scientific disciplines and are coupled with real-world experiences.

In 2023, standout student Aspen McKee will be joining the MLC summer staff as an MLC Scholar. Aspen first came to the Learning Center when she was only seven years old, and recently completed both of the Montana Aerospace Scholars (MAS) programs. MAS is a unique opportunity for Montana high school sophomores and juniors to participate in a free, online coursework developed by NASA, in partnership with the Montana Learning Center, the University of Washington, and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

MAS students also complete a summer residency at the MLC. After her sophomore year residency, she went on to the junior MAS program, which is more intense, but offers more opportunities.

She finished as one of the top three graduates, and was selected by the MLC for an all-expense paid trip to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. “I learned to fly a plane! I never, ever thought I would have those opportunities. It was really, really fun. I’d never been surrounded by that many people who interested in all the same things as me. It was a very positive experience,” she said.

In addition to being active with the MLC, Aspen is an accomplished musician, a nationally recognized dog agility trainer, and is starting her eleventh year in 4-H.

 4-H introduced her to a wide variety of interests. Her largest project has been dog training. Last year, she and her two-year-old border collie, Bounce, won the national division as a junior handler at the North American Dog Agility Council.

 This summer, she is taking advantage of an opportunity to spend an educational month in Ireland, where she will learn the culture and lifestyle. Every day that she is not in Ireland, she expects she will be at the MLC campus.

 She will start college in the fall, and plans to attend Montana State University. Aspen will likely major in mechanical engineering, but is also considering aviation programs. Eventually, she wants to attend graduate school.

 Aspen emphasizes that the Montana Learning Center was central in her decision to pursue engineering. “I don’t have a definite plan, but I have an idea of what I want to do, and that’s something I can attribute to the MLC,” Aspen said. “I am grateful for the MLC, because it gave me lifelong friends, made all my summers ten times better, and definitely helped me make career choices and decisions for my life that I was unsure about, but it made me more confident in my decisions and where I want to go with my future.”

Meet MLC Scholar Trinidy Boyce

This year, the MLC team includes Trinidy Boyce, an exceptional student who has been part of the Montana Learning Center every summer since 2017, when she was a seventh grade camper. She has chosen to return and share her love of science with the next generation of campers, this year as the MLC Scholar.

Ever since she was a little girl, Trinidy Boyce has been fascinated by space and space exploration. That interest solidified during her time as a camper at the Montana Learning Center, where she had the chance to peer into the heavens through the MLC’s powerful telescopes. That experience sparked a desire to learn more about STEM fields and led her to consider pursuing a career in the sciences.

Today, Boyce is a high school senior and a graduate of the Montana Aerospace Scholars (MAS) program, which is a unique opportunity for Montana high school sophomores and juniors to participate in coursework developed by NASA, in partnership with the Montana Learning Center, the University of Washington, and the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Boyce naturally gravitated toward using math to address the interesting challenges presented by the course, and found herself delighted to be immersed in the world of space travel.

Prior to her participation in MAS, Boyce was considering biology or wildlife biology, but MAS brought her interests into focus and clarified her goals. “As soon as I started the program, it opened up endless possibilities,” she said. “It completely changed my career goals.”

Boyce credits MLC programs with honing her interests in the sciences, and has medaled almost every year in the Montana State Science Olympiad. She played the alto saxophone in her school’s band, and enjoys guitar. For ten years, Boyce was an avid volleyball player until a 2020 weightlifting injury and subsequent surgeries sidelined her. And while that has been tough, she has maintained a positive outlook. According to Boyce, “It has been one of the most challenging things in my life, but it has taught me that I can make it through hard things and that I am stronger because of it.”

 Boyce’s strong communication skills, outgoing personality, and ability to teach and motivate other students make her a natural fit to assist MLC campers. “I take pride in my ability to not only work well with others, but helping them to better themselves by sharing my knowledge. I know how to help people and stand up to become a leader,” she said.

This MLC Scholar has her sights set on pursuing a career as an engineer for SpaceX, NASA, or Boeing, and says the MLC has been instrumental in her future plans. “The scholarship program is something that could open up my opportunities when it comes to college and my future,” Boyce said.

Montana Learning Center  Scholars from 2021

For the year 2021, the MLC team included four students who have come back, year after year, as campers, and are now serving as scholars. Each is outstanding in their pursuit of academic rigor and scientific understanding. Heath Caldwell, Mariah Mercer, Colton Quirk, and Erin Robinson are among the alumni of MLC who have chosen to return and share their love of science with the next generation of campers.

Meet MLC Scholar Erin Robinson

Being outdoors is a particular passion for Montana Learning Center scholar Erin Robinson, and she plans to take that interest with her this fall to Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., where she plans to double major in Fish & Wildlife and Political Science.

“I don’t have one dream job—rather, I would be happy in a variety of places. I prefer to work outside,” she said, adding that she has considered work as a park ranger, in wildlife rehabilitation, or as a foreign ambassador.

Her interest in the outdoors and nature took off in middle school at the MLC and also while volunteering at local wildlife rehabilitation center MontanaWild. “I began going in every day to teach a merlin how to fly again, and the experience had changed how I see the world forever,” said Robinson. Her interest in ornithology led to earning her falconry license, and she is a 2021 recipient of the Last Chance Audubon Society scholarship.

While in college, she plans to continue volunteering, and will eventually seek out internships with places like the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the Council of Foreign Affairs. The Helena student’s interest in political science has been bolstered by attending protests over the last four years, and Robinson is an ardent advocate for women’s rights, preserving the environment, and racial justice.

She has many fond memories of her time at MLC, and she says it has helped to shape who she is. “The first time I ever stepped into the ‘rock basement’ of the blue classroom, I discovered that I love geeking out over geology,” Robinson said. “Many of my closest friends to this day I met while sitting at the picnic tables at camp. But if there is one place where, looking back, I can see my future start to change paths, it is the moment when I drove up to camp for the first time. After that, everything just helped guide me to where I am today.” 

Robinson emphasizes that while MLC offers unparalleled learning experiences, there are a wealth of other great opportunities waiting for potential campers. “I would say that if you are looking to learn something new, make great friends that want to explore as much as you do, and have an incredible time at the lake, don’t bother testing the water with one foot. Jump right in!”  

Meet MLC Scholar Heath Caldwell

Digging in Eastern Montana’s soil is a particular source of joy for Montana Learning Center scholar Heath Caldwell. The aspiring paleontologist is working in collaboration with the MLC this summer as an intern for the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, Mont. It is familiar territory. He has spent at least parts of every summer there, excavating and working with fossils, since 2015.

Impressively, Caldwell is one of twenty students from Montana selected to be a Montana State University Presidential Scholar, a program which recognizes and honors some of our nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors. This fall, the Helena High School graduate will attend MSU in Bozeman and plans to study paleontology and organismal biology, with the goal of earning a PhD while pursuing various internships with museums and the National Park Service. Eventually, he wants to be a university paleontologist, where he can serve as a professor and conduct research on dinosaurs and other reptiles.

“For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a paleontologist. The immense variety of the organisms that have lived on this planet has never ceased to amaze me,” Caldwell said.

As a top graduate of Helena High School, Caldwell was an avid participant and leader in his school’s science programs. He was on Helena High’s Science Bowl team, which won the 2020 Big Sky Regional championship. Additionally, he was the Science Olympiad Individual State Champion, earning six gold medals and one bronze medal. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, playing tennis, exploring the outdoors, and looking for fossils.

In 2017, he started serving as Field and Lab Assistant at the Carter County Museum to aid in the preparation, identification, storage, and collection of fossils and historical artifacts, and in 2019, he joined the MLC staff as a camp counselor. In 2020, he became a Hydrologic Technician and Field Assistant for the United States Geological Survey Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center, where he worked in geology, water quality, groundwater monitoring, and water use data collection. During his off hours, he looked for dinosaur bones and other fossils in the area. The searching paid off when he and his father discovered an impressive leviathan fossil, which led to the Carter County Museum securing the excavation permit.

 When it came time for Caldwell to select a project to achieve Eagle Scout, he chose to give back to the MLC, which had been so instrumental in cultivating his interest in science. He logged more than 200 volunteer hours in preparing and constructing observatories at MLC’s Astronomical Park and led a crew of 15 people to help in those efforts. “The Montana Learning Center has given me the opportunity through their generous help to not only offer me an internship where I can get a head start in paleontology, but also by allowing me to get my rank of Eagle Scout by conducting a project on their observatories,” he said.

Caldwell says the MLC camps are a great way to make life-long friends, discover new passions, and find life-changing opportunities. “Attending the geology camp offered by the MLC spurred my interest in learning more about the Earth sciences, and exploring geological marvels in the great outdoors,” he said.

Meet MLC Scholar Mariah Mercer

When talking about science, it’s hard for Mariah Mercer to contain her excitement. As one of the scholars at the Montana Learning Center, Mercer is enthusiastic about sharing her love of learning and interest in scientific endeavors with younger campers, a passion that will carry into her intended career. While she plans to pursue a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona this fall, her goal is to work in education and communication, first as a secondary science educator and eventually in administration.

It was during her sophomore year that Mercer first set foot on the Montana Learning Center’s campus. That step would change the course of her life.

“My first experience at the Montana Learning Center was through their sophomore Western Aerospace Scholars’ program,” Mercer said. “I was immediately intrigued by the staff’s love of learning and was motivated by the aspirations of my peers to learn more about space and aerospace. This environment of curiosity ended up inspiring me to pursue not only a scientific field, but to end up teaching in that field.”

One particular experience stands out from the many memories she has made at the exceptional camp on the banks of Canyon Ferry Lake. “There was one night last year where I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to create an environment where people can get excited about science,’” she said. “We had just used the telescopes that night and, looking out into space, I was struck with how vast the universe is and how incredibly small I am in comparison. This sparked a thrilling curiosity in me, and I don’t think I would love space as much if it wasn’t for that experience. I hope to create mind-boggling experiences for my future students and help them appreciate the world around them.”

The Distinguished Young Women scholarship program recently named Mercer the Distinguished Young Woman of Montana for 2021. A native of Helena, Mercer was a leader at Capital High School, where she was a member of the Health Occupational Students of America (HOSA) chapter, and served as vice president during her senior year. She competed in the HOSA State Leadership Conference three years and took home the gold in Clinical Specialty and Nutrition Knowledge. She has competed and placed at the Montana Science Olympiad and the Big Sky Regional Science Bowl, winning first place in 2021.

She is also active in the arts. A singer and actress, she also plays several instruments and has been dancing since she was three. She co-founded the Girls Supporting Girls club at her school, which is committed to inspiring, supporting, educating, and advocating for girls through a variety of events and activities. “This club has fueled my passion for supporting women in STEM, and I am so proud to be working at a camp with so many female instructors and staff,” Mercer said.

While MLC staff certainly offers campers a wealth of scientific knowledge and experiences, Mercer says one of the best things about the MLC is the people. “Even if you walk away and forget all of the scientific knowledge that you have learned, you still will have met some of the best people ever. I believe that the relationships I have built at camp are some of the strongest I’ve ever had. These people all share your love of science and they will introduce you to new things you never knew before.” 

Meet MLC Scholar Colton Quirk

Scanning the night sky is a natural passion for Montana Learning Center Scholar Colton Quirk, who will pursue his love of space by dual majoring in physics and astronomy when he heads to the University of Arizona’s Honors College in the fall. Eventually, he wants to earn a doctorate in astrophysics and become a professor at a research university, where he can not only teach and share his joy in the universe with others, but also conduct research and advance the field.

“It is what I have always wanted to study,” Quirk said. “Astrophysics is the most incredible thing in the universe. It allows us to ask the deepest questions about the universe and, with any luck, get some answers.”

Quirk credits his experiences at the MLC with solidifying his interest in astronomy. It was here that he first used a telescope, took his own pictures of deep space objects, and observed Messier 63, or the Sunflower Galaxy, which he says is the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

He was also part of the acclaimed Western Aerospace Scholars program, which offered valuable insights about working in the aeronautics and aerospace engineering fields. “That greatly inspired me to keep pushing myself,” he said. “The Montana Learning Center gave me new knowledge and skills that will greatly help me as I pursue my major.”

Although born in Minnesota, Quirk has spent most of his life in Montana and Wyoming, where he says his love for space and engineering began. He built model rockets and competed in Lego Robotics. A resident of Missoula, Quirk enjoys doing magic tricks semi-professionally, is one of the leading high school chess players in the state, and made it to the state championships in tennis. He loves reading and science, and is motivated to learn.

He says he will always be grateful for MLC camps and connecting with others who share similar interests.

“If you are even thinking about going to an MLC camp, you absolutely should. The camps are so incredibly fun, you get to make lifelong friends, and learn about the coolest things,” Quirk said. “Honestly, what MLC helped me with the most is confidence. When I moved to Missoula, I was an incredibly shy kid and had a difficult time making friends. However, over the years and many MLC camps, the staff there helped me gain the confidence I severely lacked, and now I am the one being a leader and meeting new people. If you are considering doing and MLC camp, stop considering and do it.”

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