MAPS Media Institute is Creating Tech Opportunities for Montana’s Rural Youth

MAPS Media Institute in Ravalli County provides local students with free, technology and art based instruction from experts in the field.

HAMILTON — An everyday student likely doesn’t have access to a recording studio, a 3D printer, or a virtual reality headset — but students with the MAPS Media Institute have exactly that.

Media Arts in the Public Schools (MAPS) Media Institute is a state-wide program that was created in Hamilton in 2004. A completely free after-school program, it teaches students a technology-based curriculum through hands-on collaborative projects.

MAPS Media Institute was founded by a Hollywood producer who had a vision of supporting youth in the film industry. It began as an in-school program, but after seeing the engagement from students, was turned into a brick-and-mortar 501c non-profit in Hamilton.

Today, MAPS offers classes in graphic design, filmmaking, music production, 3D printing, AI, robotics, photojournalism, and podcasting — essentially anything technology-based that students are wanting to learn.

“Tech media keeps evolving, right?” current Executive Director of MAPS, Clare Ann Harff, says. “And so we get to constantly check in with the students and figure out what they want to learn about and what they’re not able to learn about in school, and how can we supplement that.”

Clare Ann Harff became the executive director of MAPS Media Institute in 2016. She is passionate about creating positive, supportive environments for youth.

Eighth to twelfth grade students in public school, private school or homeschool environments participate in MAPS every day after school from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.

Many MAPS students are living in rural communities, where resources like animation software or drone video cameras are not readily available.

“Rural youth often have less access to opportunities, experiences, tools, guests, inspirational humans, right?” Harff says.

The “inspirational humans” MAPS provides are instructors on any topic the kids want to learn, but they aren’t licensed educators.

“We tend to work with artists, verse trained or licensed educators,” Harff says. “It was that one-on-one experience with somebody who is actually doing the work that they’re teaching, and that’s a brilliant model for youth to really sink their teeth into because…these youth establish relationships — the instructors are mentors, not just teachers.”

For example, Music Production teacher Cove Jasmin has been a traveling musician for two decades. A Bitterroot Valley native, he’s worked as a teacher with MAPS for the past five years and is able to speak first-hand about what a teen from Hamilton can accomplish.

“I can be like I grew up here too, you know? And like, it’s worked out for me,” he says. “Having a career in this business, I can support myself and my family that way. So it’s, it’s real, you know, which is nice, it’s nice to be able to have that as a backbone of my teaching style.”

Ravalli County students work on the lyrics to a song with instructor Cove Jasmin as part of a music production class at the MAPS Media Institute in Hamilton.

Because of Jasmin’s background, students with the same aspirations can look to him as a role model and inspiration — including Tori Tipton, a senior with plans to attend a music production college in The Netherlands.

Tipton was a self-taught musician before joining MAPS in as an intern in September.

“My favorite part has been being around people who know what I’m talking about when I say ‘this project needs this’,” Tipton says. “My favorite part has been just sort of, I guess being here with people who are also interested in music production, people who I can talk to about music production.”

While Tipton is an experienced musician, Jasmin teaches students of all skill levels, including some who’ve never played an instrument before coming to MAPS.

Laurel De Groot is a ninth grader who has always been interested in music, but growing up in a homeschool environment, never knew much about music production.

“I didn’t even know that this like electronic version of music existed,” she says. “So yeah, it was really interesting to try to get into something completely new I’d never tried before and actually, like, really love it.”

During music production students work as a group to write and produce songs, using the MAPS recording studio and instruments.

“I love group project because it’s with the people that I love, and it’s doing something that I love,” De Groot says. “We’re all like working together bouncing off ideas, a whole lot of laughter and a lot of loud talking. It’s great. And coming up with something that usually sounds pretty good.”

At the same time Jasmin is teaching music, other students are learning about 3D printing, graphic design and animation. They have access to virtual reality headsets, iPads, 3D printers, and of course, an experienced instructor who has made a career in technology.

The instructors are not licensed or experienced with teaching in a classroom, but they are supported by Arielle Rhodz, who is exactly that. Rhodz taught gifted and talented learners in Hamilton for 15 years before retiring. She serves as Ravalli County MAPS’s educational expert.

“There’s different components to, like, lesson planning and the Montana state standards for media arts or within the technology fields that is sort of a second language to me because I’ve been in public education for many, many years,” she says. “But those things have to be kind of brought to the artists so that they can see how they’re teaching those things in their classes.”

Rhodz joined the MAPS team in February after being on the program’s board for about six years. She’s able to guide the artists so that their instruction is compliant with the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s standards.

“So if we have an instructor who’s going to teach film, they know everything there is to know about film, I know everything there is about lesson planning. We put those things together and it supports the instructor so that they can really give a polished MAPS class without having to become licensed teachers themselves,” Rhodz says.

Through Rhodz’s expertise, MAPS is able to offer many students internships or school credit. They also have a few students on payroll as teacher assistants, including both Tipton and De Groot.

Arielle Rhodz is a retired public school teacher who is now employed as Ravalli County MAPS Media Institute lead teacher.

While completing both individual and group projects, the students are able to build a community not only with the instructors but with their peers.

“I don’t have the best social skills being homeschooled, so like everybody just kind of accepts me, they don’t really care that I’m not super normal,” De Groot says. “I made some real friends here, which is very important to me.”

After nine years of continued engagement in Ravalli County, the MAPS Media Institute decided to expand in 2013. They took their instructors and equipment on the road, giving one-week intensive film workshops in rural communities across the state, including on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Harff says after visiting a county once, the MAPS team was often asked to come back.

“That’s part of our model — try not to just be a one-and-done but like ‘okay, now that this is a wrap, what’s the next thing we want to work on? How do we make that better? How do we get more youth involved, you know, how do we help more’?” she says.

Today, 19 years after its inception in the Bitterroot Valley, MAPS is an Emmy-award-winning program with an additional brick-and-mortar program in Lewis and Clark County, plus a seasonal program in Lake County and continued one-week workshops in any interested counties across the state.

“MAPS as a concept allows the technology to be the content —to be the focus. And because of the quality of instructors that we hire — we’re bringing in folks who are then on the cutting edge of their technology — you can learn from somebody, not only their vast understanding of it, but their belief in you as a new person, a new thinker who’s gonna then push that technology further,” Rhodz says.

Everything from experienced instruction to access to expensive tech equipment is free to all students.

“When you offer something for free, it eliminates any barrier of having to apply for a scholarship, wondering if you can do it, having to ask, all of those things. Basically, if you want to be here and you want to try it out, just come on through the door,” Harff says. “We are very proud to be part of the solution to bridging gaps. With not only education and arts but also with tech. And that makes a big difference too.”

As a 501c non-profit, the program is able to provide resources at no cost thanks to local and state sponsorship, and fundraising. The students are also able to make commissions for MAPS by creating paid content for community businesses.

For example, local painter Ken Payne, is employing the students at Ravalli County MAPS to create a portfolio website for his artwork.

“You kind of need a website in order to at least appear professional,” Payne says. “I had heard about them [MAPS] by reputation, and I think that anytime you can help young people and provide a little work for them is a good thing.”

Student Tori Tipton (left) and IT assistant Hunter Nickel (right) work on designing a website for local artist Ken Payne (middle).

Helping Payne create a website is a learning experience for Tipton, who hopes to one day have a website for their own art.

“And that experience that real-world learning — that’s the buzzword right now in workforce development — real-world skills,” Harff says.

The MAPS program as a whole was given the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter Governor’s Award in 2023, but their students have also won awards for their films and projects since 2015.

Overall, Harff says the MAPS Media Institute is an opportunity for students to learn the power of technology in the 21st century.

“A lot of youth have access to a smartphone and they consume all day long, and we hope to be part of the solution on how to do that with awareness. And then we also hope to help them learn how to be the producers of that content. So they’re not just soaking it in, they’re also contributing.”

Students who wish to participate in MAPS need to fill out an application online and then will be asked to complete an equipment orientation with a staff member.

Harff encourages anyone interested in learning more about what MAPS can offer to reach out via email at, or by calling MAPS Lewis and Clark County at 406 594-2827
or MAPS Ravalli County at 406-381-7230

Read this article on the KPAX Website