Bemidji couple give kids a science boost

The Headwaters Science Center in Bemidji, Minn., invites visitors to the snake feeding on March 1, 2014. The center turns 20 this year. Dan Olson/MPR News

A school memory that dates me is the lyceum; that’s when we were released from class to sit in the school auditorium and be informed and sometimes entertained by a traveling expert — someone like Laddie Elwell. I’ll introduce her to you today in a new edition of Minnesota Sounds and Voices.

In a time before the Internet, Elwell scored a Blandin Foundation grant which allowed her to become a sort of circuit-riding scientist. She’d pack a car with a bed of nails, a leaf blower, a giant sling shot and other gizmos which allowed her and other scientists she’d hired to visit northern Minnesota schools and put on a science show.

Laddie, a nickname for Adela, loves science and enjoys explaining why —  it helps make sense of the world, and in her view, the world would be a better place if we all just used more scientific reasoning and thinking to make decisions.

Laddie and Jim Elwell are founders of the 20-year-old Headwaters Science Center in Bemidji. Dan Olson/MPR News

The Elwells arrived in northern Minnesota 40 years ago to take faculty jobs at Bemidji State University and were dismayed to find the area’s science fair had withered in size and quality including mistakes on a human heart circulation project.

“Of the eighteen kids who did the process, seventeen had done it wrong,” Laddie recalled.

She and Jim seized the moment, as she describes it, ignored the usual protocol of a needs survey and creating a fundraiser strategy and simply forged ahead to create what would become the Headwaters Science Center on Beltrami Avenue right in downtown Bemidji.

Twenty years later, the center hums with kids and parents as they make structures with wooden blocks, inflate a mini hot air balloon, talk into the echo tube among the more than forty activities and exhibits there.  The center has a 20th anniversary observance planned for Saturday, March 8th.

Laddie and Jim, born in 1929 and 1925, are children of the Great Depression, from east coast families without a lot of means or education but surrounded by public galleries, displays and museums where they learned a lot about the world, including about snakes!

Headwaters Science Center exhibits include reptiles, birds, mammals and amphibians. Dan Olson/MPR News