Outstanding Student Stories
Meet The Board
Montana Learning Center Celebrates
Its 2021 Scholars!
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 children to be lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and action-takers. Participants enjoy camps in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, which are often coupled with real-world experiences.
This year, the MLC team includes 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.”