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Wolf Ridge STEM programs: Blending the future of higher learning

Students take part in a program at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. (Submitted photo)

At Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, students are getting their hands dirty while exercising their imaginations and preparing to become tomorrow’s innovators.

As a world-renowned pioneer in environmental studies, the ELC has been offering the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program since 2008. Analyzing soil and water samples, conducting fish surveys and discovering the answers to other natural science questions, students from around the country attend programs ranging in length from two to four weeks. Wolf Ridge Executive Director Pete Smerud said that the goal of the program is show the students how these academic courses are intertwined and relevant to their lives.

“Quite often what draws people here is the hands-on approach to learning. We integrate a human component — a science component which ties into engineering and math,” he said. “We also add an ethical component that triggers reflections on responsible living.”

Smerud also noted that environmental education has taken strong turn toward this multi-disciplinary form of instruction because it is necessary in today’s world.

“With climate change, greenhouse gasses and other environmental concerns, our future depends on students to understand the concepts of atmospheric and physical science,” he said.

He added that another goal of the program is to get kids interested in renewable energy and the physical sciences, which will be necessary for sustainability, medical research and innovation.

For some students, the visit to ELC is just one part of a STEM-focused curriculum at school.

The grant-funded junior high program, for example, includes two weeks at the ELC, during which students study land-based ecology and develop scientific research projects. They then attend a yearlong class at Murray Middle School in St. Paul, according to Kim Swanson, Wolf Ridge’s summer academic program coordinator.

The high school program, also funded by grants, guides students through a three- week study of freshwater ecology and environmental ethics. This course also involves the development of scientific research and ongoing exploration at selected Duluth and Minneapolis high schools.

“Most of these students also participate in an afterschool program which meets weekly for the second half of the school year,” Swanson said.

There is also a four-week program open to anyone. Swanson said it mirrors the three-week program, but is more in-depth, with a variety of additional activities offered.

“We include some additional adventure education opportunities like kayaking in Lake Superior and outdoor rock climbing, as well as a more extended hiking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail,” Swanson said. “The meat of the program is to get kids involved in hands-on science projects that may lead to potential career or advanced educational opportunities.”

Swanson noted that students soon discover that the natural sciences are interconnected with technology, engineering and math in many ways.

“They actually become a scientist through creating their own research project and following it through to completion,” she said.

As they work, they use a variety of technologies to collect data, graph the results and interpret their findings through a presentation to the rest of their camp cohorts, instructors and college grad students.

Despite the rigorous curriculum, the programs draw students with diversified backgrounds from Silver Bay to Hawaii. In order to participate, students must demonstrate the desire and ability to complete the course.

Swanson described some of the projects the students tackle as “comprehensive. The high school class conducts a full analysis of Sawmill Creek, which runs through the Wolf Ridge property.”

Students must collect data on dissolved oxygen, Ph, flow rates and must map the stream, and the work doesn’t stop there. The Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division allows the students to assist in electro-shocking to obtain a fish population assessment. The data is collected, compiled and their findings must be communicated in a public speaking forum.

Other examples of course work involve land-based studies, including forestry and wildlife applications. According to Swanson, the junior high students use forestry tools to obtain core samples of trees to determine age, take soil samples, conduct small mammal sampling and other plant and animal species identification.

“They discover what soil properties are required for certain plant life and how this affects animal life,” she said.

Smerud noted that educators often refer to this type of learning as inquiry based learning.

“The students are actually put in a situation where they must decide what it is they want to know; asking questions is the precursor to problem solving,” he said, noting students must create their own hypothesis and utilize science, technology, engineering and math to develop a deeper understanding and analyze their findings.

“They become scientists,” Smerud said.

Because the program is accredited and students can earn credits toward their graduation, Wolf Ridge has requirements in place for the successful completion of the program. According to Swanson, several different components of the program are graded.

“They must complete a scientific project and poster, they have required readings and participation, and they must complete a two-page environmental ethics paper,” Swanson said.

By all accounts, the program is a hit with students and their teachers.

“If you can measure the effect of the experience in tears; there was not one dry eye when it was time to come back home,” said Murray Middle School science teacher, Timothy Chase, who credited U.S. Forest Service grants for making the program possible for many kids who might not otherwise be able to attend.

“These grants allow some students to experience life outside of the city for the first time. For some it’s their night away from the city lights,” Chase said, and now having had the opportunity, several of his students have expressed a desire to become educators at Wolf Ridge someday.

In addition to the USFS grants, Smerud said that the program has garnered attention and contributions from corporate heavy-hitters foundations like Medtronic, Boston Scientific, H.B. Fuller, and Cliffs Natural Resources that see it as an investment in a future workforce.

“These large corporations are seeing students going into science that is purely technology based. They are motivated by this hands-on research learning endeavor for potential future employees,” he said.

It’s a win for students, a win for corporations that rely on bright, creative employees, and it’s a win for the nation, which according to the U.S. Department of Education, has taken a back seat (25th in math and 17th in science) to many other countries in recent years. With the STEM program, however, students can dream of the future and build a bridge to get there.

The STEM program is also capturing the attention of increasing numbers of school administrators and teachers. Smerud said, “The STEM program at Wolf Ridge is designed to reverse this trend and renew an interest in the scientific field.”