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.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Smoke billowed from old coffee cans, smudging the work site at the Steger Wilderness Center where seven apprentice stonemasons were deep into their training program. From a functional perspective, the smoke thwarted black flies and mosquitoes. Aesthetically, it offered a sensory complement to the projects at hand.

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Instructor and master stonemason Ian McKiel explained that the stonemason apprentice program at the Center is specifically for job training. It’s an intensive, month-long seminar focused on stone, masonry and dry stone laying. Apprentices receive hands-on experience working with concrete and mortar to shape various types of structural and ornamental walls.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

As a warm-up project, the apprentices constructed a random-rubble style sitting wall. They mixed and poured concrete, reinforced steel footing, then switched to mortar to build up the wall, capping the top with decorative bluestone. It’s a lot to learn in the first week.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

“This type of work and this type of learning doesn’t really lend itself well to sitting in the lodge and going over things. So basically I get their hands moving and then talk as everybody’s moving,” McKiel said.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Their second project involved structural work under the deck that surrounds the Wilderness Center’s convention center. McKiel said apprentices constructed a stone wall beneath the outer edges of the deck that bear the deck’s weight. The wooden supports which previously held up the deck along that edge were removed. For an add-on project, the apprentices created an arch doorway at one of the storage locations within the stone wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

According to McKiel, the early stages of learning how to look at stone is a matter of imagining it going into place. “When you’re setting a stone, think about the space above it… Think about the stone that’s going to go on top of the one you’re actually setting, because that stops you from creating problem spots that only a very specific stone can get you out of.”

That type of anticipation and thoughtfulness would appear to serve anyone well whether they’re stonemason apprentices or global leaders. Jess Nimmo, 23, said she participated in the program because masonry seemed like a good fit with the type of career she’s seeking. She’s worked in residential construction, done some welding and blacksmithing, and is currently employed in a custom finishing shop for products like furniture. The program increased her interest in stone masonry.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“I fully intend on going home and doing a little bit of it myself over at my mom’s place. I’m sure she would love it,” she said.

She also explained how the functional and aesthetic elements of masonry are similar to her number one passion.

“I’ll be a welder, for damn sure. That’s my dream job and I’m going to make it happen,” she stated. “I don’t just want it as a job. I would love to be able to use it as a hobby. I’ve got that blacksmithing experience…[the] more artsy form of welding, being able to form the metal any way you want.”

Milo Payne, 21, said he loved the masonry work and could do it for a lifetime. He has an interest in art and views stone masonry as art in another form.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“There are so many different stones you can choose from, so many designs and shapes,” he said.

He added that the convention center building inspires his dreams. “[It’s] phenomenal. I want to hopefully, down the road, with this experience that I have right now, build something from the ground up like this.”

Steger said the Wilderness Center is about hands-on learning and self-reliance. While apprentice programs are offered at a variety of locations in numerous fields around the world, he addressed how the Wilderness Center stands out.

“Learning to work with mortar, concrete and stone is a skill as important as learning the alphabet; it will be with them all of their lives. But the transformational power of the wilderness gives these young people opportunities to see possibilities they haven’t before,” he said.
end of june group

Payne called his time at the Wilderness Center a “fresh, exciting experience” and contrasted it to his life in Elk River, Minnesota. “Many people have to know this experience to know the difference from city life and a life of working to provide for somebody else, or provide for yourself, or just providing in general.”

Along with spending weeks in the wilderness, Nimmo said the best part of the program was being within a community of like-minded people who also accomplished basic chores such as gathering water and taking turns doing dishes. “It’s really great how everybody here works so well together. I feel like this setting definitely brings that out in people.”

The Steger Wilderness Center, Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services, Inc. (CMJTS) have formed a three-fold partnership to offer the stonemason apprentice program. CMJTS is dedicated to serving young and emerging adults, up to age 24, and preparing them for the workforce. They provide employment and training services that connect young people with careers and assist them in achieving success. For further information, visit online at cmjts.org or call or 800-284-7425.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff