To reach a bunch of students start with teaching the teachers. Such was the guiding principle for the first-ever convening of the “Life off the Grid Energy Conference” at the Steger Wilderness Center. A diverse group of middle school and high school teachers, college and technical school professors and deans, and specialists in the energy industry gathered as participants or presenters at the Center in June. The resulting enthusiasm spread like electricity through a web.

The group paused for a photo during a tour of the Wilderness Center (L to R): Chuck Cooper, Megan Heitkamp, Jack Kleumpke, Will Steger, Aaron Barker, Scott Randall, Bruce Peterson, Ivan Maas, Donna Andren and Charlie Cannon.

The group paused for a photo during a tour of the Wilderness Center (L to R): Chuck Cooper, Megan Heitkamp, Jack Kleumpke, Will Steger, Aaron Barker, Scott Randall, Bruce Peterson, Ivan Maas, Donna Andren and Charlie Cannon.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College biologist Melanie Waite-Altringer coordinated the conference. As an environmental science instructor, she explained the importance of educating teachers about how to present newer material in energy fields and attracting new people to carry the technology forward.

“Within a few years there’s going to be a big turn-around. A lot of people are going to retire in the industry. So we really need to get a lot of people, a lot of kids interested in this, things that they wouldn’t normally even think about,” she said.

Those attending the conference heard from a variety of industry experts and were given hands-on experience. Waite-Altringer said the activities and lectures prompted deep questions conducive to spirited education. It was more than just listening to someone’s Power Point presentation.

Will Steger gave a personal and detailed tour of the entire Wilderness Center. Joel Cannon from 10K Solar explained the center’s solar micro-grid. Doug Renk of BIOFerm Energy Systems demonstrated an anaerobic digester, a device which composts organic matter, captures methane and produces electrical or thermal energy. Other topics included thermal imaging and biofuels.

Megan Heitkamp and Donna Andren take a soil sample for a biomass energy activity.

Megan Heitkamp and Donna Andren take a soil sample for a biomass energy activity.

Phil Anderson from the Neighborhood Energy Connection performed an energy audit on one of the cabins at the Wilderness Center. The cabin tested well with the exception of a small air leak from a hidden attic door inside a closet.

Teachers also engaged in a windmill competition. Contestants were given miniature experimental windmill kits. The assembly component of the contest was identical for all. However, the competition came from differences in blade design. Whoever generated the most voltage won the contest.

Jack Kluempke and Aaron Barker assemble their windmill kit for the Windmill Challenge. All participants received a kit for the competition to see who could produce the most electrical energy from their unique blade design.

Jack Kluempke and Aaron Barker assemble their windmill kit for the Windmill Challenge. All participants received a kit for the competition to see who could produce the most electrical energy from their unique blade design.

In addition, every teacher received curriculum, lesson plans, and soil and windmill kits at no charge to take back to their classrooms. Megan Heitkamp teaches seventh-grade life science at Salk Middle School in Elk River. She said she has a passion for alternative energy, but an even greater passion for facilitating student learning experiences in areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“One of the best benefits of the conference was gaining important classroom resources such as lab kits for student use,” she said. “The relationships between teacher-energy experts is another resource that will come in handy as I try and build curricular units around the topics discussed at the conference.”

Megan Heitkamp (2nd left) uses thermal imaging to detect air leaks for energy efficiency in one of the Center’s cabins.

Megan Heitkamp (2nd left) uses thermal imaging to detect air leaks for energy efficiency in one of the Center’s cabins.

Jack Kluempke is the solar business advisor for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. He said the conference was valuable not just for the knowledge he gained, but in developing a network to advance the energy industry overall.

“I gained a deeper understanding of wind and anaerobic digestion processes, not areas of expertise for me. I also found the people involved to be very informed and enthusiastic about the conference, which helps boost my resolve to keep working at it,” he said.

Waite-Altringer also noted that the setting of the Wilderness Center also had an overpowering effect of its own on the teachers. “You can describe it, [but] you have to be here to feel it and I think that’s what really brings this to a whole…different level of education.”

The evening campfire at Hobo Village featured (L to R): Joel Cannon, Jenna Pollard, Aaron Barker, Chuck Cooper and Charlie Cannon.

The evening campfire at Hobo Village featured (L to R): Joel Cannon, Jenna Pollard, Aaron Barker, Chuck Cooper and Charlie Cannon.

The Minnesota Energy Center funded the conference through a grant that also funded all eight “Energy Education for Educators” (E3) workshops in Minnesota. Life off the Grid was the first of those this year. Waite-Altringer said the other conferences don’t necessarily focus exclusively on sustainable energy. They can include other forms of energy such as nuclear, hydro and coal. Teachers can choose the field they’d like to know more about. For more information, visit energycareersminnesota.com.

Story by Scott Stowell.

Photos by Melanie Waite-Altringer.