BOZEMAN - Students at Montana State University are putting the skills they’ve learned at the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering and applying them to an inmate training program in Deer Lodge.
This season’s project entails working in the furniture shop to build home, office, and hospitality furniture which will then be sold.
This partnership program began back in 2019 with a group of students working toward a warehouse project. COVID-19 and pandemic precautions lead the project to be put on hold, with a second group of students returning this spring.
“I reached out to MSU to work on a collaborative project to maximize our warehouse square footage,” Joel Miller said. “The program that I manage, we are not taxpayer-funded…we only exist through the products and services we sell, so anything we can do to make us more efficient and more agile in our business practices is great for us.”
That’s where the "Bobcats" come in, such as Emily, Josh and Ryan. The three students are enrolled in their "Capstone," or senior-level course, for engineering and had the option of several different projects.
“It was very applicable to what we’ve learned in school. It’s also a very different environment,” Ryan Bickford, a student on the Capstone team said. “This one really stood out as being really special.”
Emily Griffiths is also a member of the team and recalls the moment of driving through the gates of the Montana State Prison.
“Well, I remember looking over at the backseat at one of my teammates and both of us just had big eyes when we saw the fences,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths said it didn’t take long for the team to get comfortable and begin collaborating with the inmates. The students are supervised by staff while working and collaborating in the furniture shop with the inmates.
Josh Seidler stresses the importance of learning outside of the classroom, the intention of the Capstone course, and utilizing different "softer" skills while working with around sixty inmates.
“As I walk into the facility it really comes down to those "soft skills." It’s not how good I am at crunching numbers, it’s how good am I to getting 60 guys on board with what I think is going to work to improve the system,” Seidler said.
Seidler doesn’t only think of the immediate skills he and the inmates are learning, but what a program like this could mean for the state of Montana.
“I think when they get out and they get into the workplace, they’re really skilled at what they do, they’re skilled workers, and employers are going to benefit from that,” Seidler said.
The program will continue throughout the Spring semester for the MSU students.