The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and using this time to...

Magic in Missoula

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and using this time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the first of what we hope will be several more installments. 

Magic in Missoula
by Phelan R Fretz, Ph.D.

Activity station at SpectrUM
Pursuing golden examples to inform ECHO's future is part of my sabbatical this summer. With over 350 science centers and aquariums nationwide - all eager to share - deciding on which centers to visit and learn from is the toughest challenge. I heard about the extraordinary work of SpectrUM (UM is caps for University of Montana - and a clue to their story) in Missoula, Montana through ECHO's director of education, Molly Loomis. 

Interactive watershed table at SpectrUM 

Molly recently completed a national leadership institute and met the SpectrUM director Holly Truitt. This week, Holly welcomed me to their new center in downtown Missoula, a recent move from a smaller space on campus. Upon first glance, the 4,000 sq. ft. retail location overlooking busy Front Street is like many other science centers. One corner is all about our brain with microscopes and models. Another corner features a model of their watershed with a working stream table. What looks like a restaurant bar is actually an activity station - with today's focus on fingerprints. 

There is so much to learn from and absorb at SpectrUM but two things stood out for me, the first is that the University of Montana's EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program is recognized in every SpectrUM exhibit and the second thing is how they manage educational outreach to far flung areas of rural and expansive Montana.  

Mini-science center and lab at the University of Montana
First, about UM. In 2007, as an EPSCoR recipient, (EPSCor is a National Science Foundation program that aims to strengthen STEM education and research*), UM decided to proactively create opportunities for their faculty to "broaden the impact" of their scientific research by building a mini-science center on campus. As the founding director, Holly indicated why this is so important. "Scientists that demonstrate real strategies to reach the public in their research proposals are more competitive", she said. "It's a win-win," she continued, "by committing to support public engagement through SpectrUM, we receive financial support and the faculty are more likely to get their grant."

Holly's creativity didn't stop here, which brings me to my second point. Simultaneous to creating the mini-science center on campus, they created a platform to deliver science education not just in Missoula, but across the state. Holly shared, "our traveling program is designed to serve as a week-long science-in-resident experience, transforming the state's far-reaching schools into science centers." The day I visited, the traveling program was on its way to a Native American Pow Wow.

With the UM president sitting on SpectrUM's advisory board, along with faculty and civic leaders, the institution realizes the full support of both the community and the university - a very powerful combination. 

So why is this a golden example for ECHO to think about? Two reasons. Born in the University, SpectrUM is highly integrated into the workings of the university and thus receives both funding and access to cutting-edge research to support public outreach (it is actually a department of UM). Second, if they can figure out how to create, fund, and deliver a traveling program across rural Montana, we should consider the same in Vermont. After all, it's a 10-hour drive across Montana - the same as driving to Washington, DC from Burlington, Vermont.

*NSF provides special support to state universities to grow their faculty's competitive research skills and capacity; often in states with smaller populations such as Montana and Vermont. Mor information about NSF EPSCor program can be found here:

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  1. The title "Magic in Missoula" reminds me of the '70's New Jersey song "Raucus in Secaucus". -Bill

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