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Cliffs and ELC give students science opportunities

A group of students after their visit at Cliffs Northshore. Photo courtesy of Wolf Ridge-ELC.1 / 4
Wolf Ridge Naturalist helped a student identify a species of dragonfly. Photo courtesy of Wolf Ridge-ELC.2 / 4
Students participating in a Stream Survey. Photo courtesy of Wolf Ridge-ELC.3 / 4
A student reflecting after a day of research in the BWCA. Photo courtesy of Wolf Ridge-ELC.4 / 4

A $15,000 donation from Cliffs Natural Resources is allowing a group of low-income students at Duluth's Denfeld High School to get hands-on field experience from Wolf Ridge professionals.

The contribution from the Cliffs Foundation to the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland is giving the students the opportunity to experience the type of work that Cliffs and Wolf Ridge staff do on a daily basis, officials say.

"The classic example is a geologist," said Pete Smerud, executive director of Wolf Ridge. "Spending a great deal of time in the field is great and it's something that we teach at Wolf Ridge."

The donation, which will be formally presented at a ceremony at Denfeld next Tuesday, is allowing 23 low-income ninth and 10th-graders to participate in Wolf Ridge's Science Immersion Program.

"In Wolf Ridge's effort to provide an outreach of services to communities in the state, we began the program in the Twin Cities," Smerud said. "That began five years ago, and now the Cliffs donation enables us to carry out the program at Denfeld."

Through the program, the participating students are meeting once a week for an after school class with a teacher, as well as taking three weekend immersion trips to locations like Wolf Ridge. The students will finish off the course with a three-week environmental science camp at Wolf Ridge this summer.

Teachers were responsible for recommending students for the class. The program utilizes standard academic components, including a grading rubric and student assessments, and successful completion of the program will give the students academic credits.

The program can help students catch up with science credits and get those students, who may not otherwise pursue advanced science classes, interested in the field.

"We want to help students recognize their potential in science and make it an engaging endeavor," Smerud said. "We can help produce the next science professionals of our region. Ultimately, that may be a goal that may not have seemed possible before for a lot of these kids. But we can provide them the skills to help prepare for these careers."

Officials from Cliffs and Wolf Ridge say the program is particularly beneficial to students in Northern Minnesota because of the opportunity for science and environmental careers at places like Wolf Ridge, the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service.

"Wolf Ridge approached us last year about the program," said Sandy Karnowski, Cliffs' district manager for public affairs in Minnesota. "It's a program that they've had in past and they've seen success. It's not just an opportunity for students to get an environmental education, but it also helps low-income students, so we felt that this was something we wanted to support."

This isn't the first time Cliffs and Wolf Ridge have worked together. The Cliffs Foundation has made several donations to some of Wolf Ridge's programs in the past, and students frequently tour Cliffs' North Shore Mining facility in Silver Bay.

"The interesting way they garner lessons, it's not just about environmental responsibly, but also our need for products that come from the earth," Karnowski said. "So we have provided donations to them for years, but this probably the most significant."

Wolf Ridge would like to continue the Science Immersion Program in Duluth, but Cliffs' donation is only enough to fund the program for one year. However, the search will continue for donations from other organizations for the continuation of the program, Smerud said.

"We've proven the model successful in Minneapolis, and now we need to seek out funding and establish a support mechanism," he said.

With more students of color entering schools, Smerud said it's important to ensure that science education remains a part of secondary and postsecondary education.

"There are science education leaders around country looking to improve the science education experience for low-income students in culturally diverse areas," he said. "This country has a strong history of science education, but it's a leaky pipeline with students of color in lower-income areas. It's crucial that we fix problems these problems with science education."