Montana State University President Waded Cruzado meandered Thursday through a room displaying student research projects and declared it to be "wonderful."

"It fills me with emotion to see the vibrancy, the scholarship," Cruzado said as she checked out more than 20 examples of students' work.

The projects ranged from building an award-winning moon-dirt digging machine for NASA, to inventing a new way to build affordable housing, to engineering a faster race car and discovering ways to fight infections.

The gathering of student research projects was one of several events held Thursday and Friday leading up to Cruzado's formal inauguration this morning at 10:30 a.m. as MSU's 12th president.

Cruzado said she didn't want all the inaugural focus on her.

"I want this celebration to be about the students, faculty, the staff," Cruzado said, walking through the student displays in the Strand Union Building. "I am just a moment in time, but the university has a great history, a great future."

Professor Florence Dunkel pulled Cruzado over to see a display showing what her students have been doing - bringing a group of Northern Cheyenne Indians to a rural village in Africa's Mali so people could share ideas for preserving their own cultures and languages despite the pressures of globalization. A documentary on the project, "Dancing Across the Gap," will soon air by Montana PBS.

"MSU is one of the very first universities that requires research or creative activity of every undergraduate - it's remarkable," Dunkel said.

MSU is unusual in supplying some funding for student projects, she said. And it encourages professors to create courses that aren't based on lectures, but on mentoring students as they work on "real problems in the real world."

"The emphasis on research has allowed us to do this," Dunkel said. "This is an amazing university. We need to engage students in the real community."

"So that it matters to someone outside the ivory tower," agreed Kristi Scott, a master's student in Native American studies, who did research at the Smithsonian on Montana Indian students who were forced into boarding schools.

Jenny Sue Hane, 21, now a grad student in electrical engineering, was part of the team of eight students who built the successful moon digger, called the Montana MULE.

"It's kind of a morale booster when you can build something and see theory going into practice," Hane said. "And it's a resume booster. Employers want to know that you ... can apply (theory) to something real."

Jackson Trout, 22, explained a new "steel green box" that architecture students created. It could provide permanent housing for people in places like Haiti, he said, "instead of a tent that can blow over in the next storm."

Thursday's events included a public forum on the mission of land-grant universities like MSU, and a reception to celebrate the month-long exhibition at the Museum of the Rockies of the 1862 Morrill Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln, which created land-grant colleges.

The day began with the grand opening of the MSU Gallatin College Programs. It offers one- and two-year job training courses in aviation, welding, computer-aided design and interior design, as well as remedial classes in math and English for four-year students.

The program has a new name and a new home in the newly renovated Hamilton Hall. It now has twice as much space and a more central location in the 100-year-old historic building, just north of the SUB.

Supporters hope the Gallatin College Programs' physical move, and the recent move of administrative responsibility from Great Falls to Bozeman, will lay the foundation it to someday grow into a real community college, offering job and skill training that southwest Montana now lacks.

"We feel very fortunate President Cruzado provided this space," said Bob Hietala, dean of Gallatin College Programs. "It's an opportunity to start working on workforce programs, one- and two-year degrees for students who are not (four-year) college-bound, and displaced workers. ... This is kind of the start."

Bozeman Mayor Jeff Krauss, a strong advocate for creating a two-year community college, spoke at the opening.

Krauss said half the students who start at Montana's four-year universities don't finish, and many high school kids never even try college. He said he has no doubt that people like him will eventually get a property tax passed by voters to make a community college possible.

A practical education that leads to good jobs is not only important to employers, Krauss said, but also to an individual's "sense of self worth."

"This will be big for parents, big for students, for people who have worked 10 years (and ask), ‘What can you do for me to get me back in the workforce?'" Krauss said. "We just don't have an answer now."

 

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com.