Trying to keep kids in International Falls by teaching engineering

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – A scramble of fifth-graders streamed into the engineering classroom at Falls High School, a little cautious, a little excited. The overhead lights were off for effect, emphasizing the tiny, colorful bulbs illuminated on various desks around the room.

Students in a class taught by industrial tech teacher David Olson and math teacher Timm Ringhofer experiment with conductive play-dough and LED lights Monday, November 11, 2013 at Falls High School in International Falls, Minn. (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

The seniors, juniors and sophomores who are enrolled in this high school class, launched at the beginning of the school year, had built working circuits from wire and salty, homemade play-dough. Now they were expected to show the younger kids how to do the same.

“Be prepared to show them series circuits and parallel circuits,” said Dave Olson, the class’s avuncular co-teacher. “Be ready to impress.”

This wasn’t a typical day for the students, but getting kids of all ages interested in engineering is a main objective of this new program. The larger goal is to broaden the job horizons for kids in International Falls, a city of about 6,400 on the Canadian border. This city, like many smaller communities around the state, has been losing young people who go elsewhere for education and high-paying employment.

At the same time, mining companies and manufacturers like the local paper mill, which laid off 265 workers in October but still maintains a workforce of nearly 600, tend to look outside the area when hiring engineers. The hope is that with the right encouragement, local kids could someday fill those jobs.

The population of International Falls is aging. Currently about 20 percent of the people here are 65 and older. The trend is especially visible in the high school, where the senior class comprises fewer than 100 kids. In the 1970s, the senior class was three times as big.

“We’re looking at declining enrollment,” said Falls High Principal Tim Everson. And the layoffs at the paper mill promise to cut the numbers even more. “In the next six months, more families will be leaving town as they find new jobs,” he said, noting he’s not sure how many will go. “We’re already looking at areas where we could have reductions,” including possible staff cuts.

The idea to start the engineering class at the high school came from Timm Ringhofer, who teaches the class with Olson. Ringhofer, normally a math instructor, attended a meeting in February sponsored by Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minn., where people were discussing a new framework for engineering training with the potential to keep kids on the Iron Range. “I came back intrigued,” he said.

He spoke to Everson and Olson, who both were enthusiastic.

Fifth-graders listen to industrial tech teacher David Olson demonstrate how an LED light can be lit using voltage generated by different fruits Monday, November 11, 2013 at Falls High School in International Falls, Minn. (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

Students had to apply to be in the engineering class, the only requirement a passing grade in geometry. Olson and Ringhofer expected 15 or so enrollees, but got 20, a mix of brainy kids and those who are good with their hands. It’s an introductory, broad-based class with the objective of “getting people started on the idea of engineering so it’s not foreign,” said Ringhofer. “So they don’t think you have to be super smart.”

Olson, who normally teaches shop, thinks the class turned out to be so popular because, “We are a really hands on community. The kids want to build something. They want to make something. We are getting to the high tech side of hands on.”

Students joke around while connecting wires to conductive play-dough and producing a buzzing sound Monday, November 11, 2013 at Falls High School in International Falls, Minn.(Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

Whether in the end the class will keep more kids in this border area of northern Minnesota remains to be seen. And because the program is only several months old, there are details yet to be worked out, such as how the class connects to college.

“We’re not just saying become an engineer and work at (the mill),” Everson said. “We’re saying, here is engineering. You like math and science. Some in the class are more fabricators. They may end up working more on the fabrication end, which is OK too. We’ll probably have kids going in two directions. Some will go to a four-year college to pursue an engineering degree. And then some will go for two-year training and go into more fabrication, welding.”

Whatever education level students choose to pursue, Ringhofer is counting on the strong connection many have to International Falls. “This is a closed community,” he said. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. People find their way back here. It will be great to see how the kids turn out.”