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Cliffs donation gives Denfeld students new science opportunities

Peter Gravett, Sandy Karnowski, and Alison Wood share a laugh before Karnowski presents a $15,000 check to Peter Gravett. Karnowski is Cliffs Natural Resources district manager for public affairs in Minnesota. Gravett is the education director at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, and Wood is a science teacher at Denfeld High School. The donation is allowing 23 Denfeld students to take part in Wolf Ridge's Science Immersion Program. (Photo by Tom Olsen)1 / 2
The 23 Denfeld students enrolled in the Wolf Ridge program will receive science credits upon completion of the year-long class. Besides meeting after school, the students will take three weekend trips and spend three weeks at Wolf Ridge this summer. (Photo by Tom Olsen)2 / 2

A $15,000 donation from Cliffs Natural Resources is allowing a group of low-income students at Denfeld High School to get hands-on training 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 workers 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 was presented at a ceremony at Denfeld on 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 every other 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 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.

"I took the class mainly to get the science credits," said Denfeld student Mariah Twardowski. "But I've really enjoyed the weekend trips."

The program can help underprivileged students catch up with science credits, and get students who don't usually 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 such as Wolf Ridge, Cliffs Natural Resources, 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 the 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."

Brother and sister Barry and Aimee Toland decided to take part in the program upon the recommendation of their older sister who had previously participated in the program.

"I'm really excited for it because I like science a lot," said Barry, who is contemplating a career in either science or law. "I always like to learn new things."

His sister has taken an interest in science as well.

"Science is awesome," Aimee said. "I've really enjoyed learning about habitats and how they work together."

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' mining facility in Silver Bay.

"The interesting way they garner lessons, it's not just about environmental responsibility, but also our need for products that come from the earth," Karnowski said. "They recognize that operations such as iron ore mining need to happen. 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, officials will continue to search 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 the 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 these problems with science education."