Montana State University students Eric Dietrich and Varsha Rao say they’ve learned a lot working on a research project with Crow Reservation residents to find an affordable way make local drinking water safer.

MSU students traveled to the reservation for months to take water samples and work with the Indian community to test a new filtration system, which looks like several plastic containers stacked on top of each other.

Dietrich, 23, a senior in civil engineering, said it’s been a great experience, a chance to work with “awesome people” at MSU and on the reservation, to do research where the results really matter, and “to give back to our home state.”

Rao, a chemical and biological engineering student, said it was “eye-opening” for her to learn that just a 90-minute drive from Billings, there are people who can’t drink the water.

Theirs was one of about 250 examples of students’ creativity, scientific curiosity and hard work on display Thursday at the 2013 MSU Student Research Celebration.

The event highlights what MSU leaders see as one of the university’s biggest strengths – that all students get to do some kind of research or creative project.

Students showed their work on everything from making better barley to robotic moon mining machines, from films to black holes, compost and arthritis.

“It’s probably one of the best opportunities for our students to learn,” said Provost Martha Potvin. “The hands-on component is a critical way to learn. One of the nicest parts is they get to work one-on-one with faculty, who are among the best researchers in the world.”

Dominique David, 30, a junior in earth sciences, talked about her work with the McNair Scholars Program, which helps students who are low-income, from underrepresented minorities or the first in their families to attend college.

David, whose mother’s family is from the Caribbean Taino tribe, is investigating native place names and what they reveal about “indigenous science,” knowledge gained through centuries of observation of the natural world. She plans to interview American Indian elders to learn more about the native names for places like the Missouri Headwaters, to combine that with Western scientific information and make the results available to the public through Google Earth.

Justin Brewer, 21, a senior in cell biology and neuroscience from Melstone, presented a McNair project on “zic genes” in chick embryos, part of a larger research effort at MSU to learn more about how animal embryos develop, which might someday help reduce chances of birth defects in people.

“I’ve learned a ton I never would have learned outside a research lab,” said Brewer, who wants to go to medical school. “It’s a fantastic experience.”

Erin McDonald, 20, a junior in electrical engineering, went to Kenya last summer with MSU Engineers Without Borders students who are installing clean water wells at rural schools. She researched ways villagers might band together to get solar panels to charge their cellphones, so they wouldn’t have to spend lots of time and money at market charging stations.

Elizabeth Redman, a grad student in sustainable food systems, conducted a pilot project to compost salad scraps from an MSU kitchen over the winter, using a method that works without oxygen. It worked, composting 1,700 pounds in four weeks, and she’s hoping to expand it at MSU to make compost for the Towne’s Harvest gardens.

Jordan Larsen, 21, a film and business marketing student, is working with a crew of students to make an independent dramatic film, which they hope to enter in film festivals from New York to Sundance. Larsen said she “fell in love” with filmmaking.

Computer science majors Logan Warberg and Alison Figueira are part of a team creating MSU’s latest lunar mining machine for a NASA contest. They want the software to be foolproof, because if something goes wrong, the other student engineers “always blame the software,” Figueira said, laughing.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.