By Tim Leeds
Montana State University-Northern has received funding in three different areas to help north-central Montana move into the future.
Congress reinstated nearly $300,000 in funding to prepare education students to use technology in the classroom. It appropriated $250,000 for Northern's new North American Rural Futures Institute. And the U.S. Department of Education awarded the university more than $280,000 to build a community technology center at the Vande Bogart Library.
Jonathon Richter, coordinator of the PT3 teacher-technology grant, said the money will allow Northern to find ways to overcome obstacles rural areas like north-central Montana face.
"We can take our challenges and use them as assets," he said.
Northern is setting up two classrooms in the library that are wired for Internet access, is making plans to implement the new funding for NARFI, and is already in the third year of its PT3 program.
The Department of Education program, Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers for Technology, provided money to Northern to examine how technology use is taught in the university's education department and how it can be improved. Northern received two years' worth of grants in the multi-year project.
Funding was taken away this year when Congress began cutting the budget, but was reinstated in December. Curtis Smeby, PT3 director at Northern, said the money will enable the program to build the university's capacity to teach technology and increase the use of technology at the university and in the community.
Because of the program, the number of people with anxiety about technology at Northern has decreased.
"We've developed a community of learners," he said. "There's not (a high) level of concern. People are saying, I can find out how to do it if I talk to the right people.'"
Richter said the benefits of the program are already being seen, with changes both in what is being taught and how it is taught. Technology is more a part of the curriculum as well as a more widely used tool in the classroom.
Another part of the program is the Mirror Center at the university, "the central nervous system for the PT3 partnership," Richter said. "It also acts as a resource center for teachers in teacher education."
The center's computer workstations have both commonly found programs, and programs and links to Web sites for specific disciplines like science, English, math and nursing. The center can be used for research, individual consultations, classes and workshops, and as an area to preview software. Richter said the intent is to help people understand the use of technology in teaching.
"It's called the Mirror Center because we want people to reflect on the use of technology," he said.
To obtain the PT3 grant, the university had to develop partnerships with area schools and show how the funding would increase technology use in those schools. Northern is partnered with Havre Public Schools, St. Jude Thaddeus School and the Golden Triangle Curriculum Consortium, an association of area schools. It also is partnered with several tribal colleges.
One facet of the partnership are the multi-media carts, paid for with PT3 money and provided by Northern. The carts include digital cameras, a laptop computer, a projector to use with the computer for presentations, and software for the systems.
Shannon Patterson, director of development for St. Jude's, said the cart at her school is in constant use. She said the partnership with Northern has had a major impact at the school.
A school Web site was developed, and teachers now have access to the Internet and training on how to use it. Students are using it daily. Teachers are taking turns using the digital camera to create their own Power Point presentations. Plans are being made to create "virtual field trips" where the students can study other locations without leaving the classroom.
Chancellor Alex Capdeville said the university will continue to support the program even if federal funding is cut.
"When you get a grant to create a center, it's my philosophy that commitment goes beyond the grant," he said. "If the grant dollars run out tomorrow, we have a commitment to continue."
The community technology center in the MSU-N library will house two classrooms with computers, scanners, digital cameras, video cameras and computer accessories. Classes will be scheduled to teach the use of computers and software, and the center will be available as a computer lab when it's not being used for classes or workshops.
Richter said the grant to fund NARFI probably won't be in hand for several months so that project is still in the early planning stages. One of the first actions likely will be to hire a director for the institute, and set up boards, possibly regional and national, for guidance.
Richter said the goal of NARFI is to act as a clearinghouse for ideas about how rural areas can move positively into the future.
"What are other folks doing, what are other countries or regions doing" to proactively move into a successful future, he said.