Denfeld students eager to learn, but not with outdated equipment

About three weeks ago, an honors physics class at Duluth Denfeld halted an experiment on electricity when students discovered their department lacked the right equipment and the money to go out and buy it. Instead of throwing in the towel, studen...

About three weeks ago, an honors physics class at Duluth Denfeld halted an experiment on electricity when students discovered their department lacked the right equipment and the money to go out and buy it. Instead of throwing in the towel, students decided to study the reach of the problem in their school.

"I think I always knew that we didn't have a lot of the stuff that other schools in the metro have, but I didn't think it was that bad until we starting doing this," said Kelsey Mlodozyniec, a junior involved in the project.

The class -- about 20 upperclassmen -- organized its findings in a documentary titled "An Inconvenient Problem." It includes photos of outdated equipment and deteriorating science labs; interviews with students and teachers about their learning and teaching conditions, and figures about the limited money spent on some Duluth science programs. It also explores the impact the same issues have on other curricular areas.

"We wanted to let people know how hard it is to get an adequate education like this," Mlodozyniec said.

Ingrid Monson, a junior, remembers some of the challenges posed in her science classes.


"You can't even see through some of the test tubes because they're so stained, which makes it really hard to record measurements," she said. Dissecting a pig for another class also proved challenging. "You got points off if you nicked the wrong thing, but the knives were so dull that you couldn't really be precise because you have to push so hard."

Other students told stories about having to wear jackets in classrooms because of the cold or ransacking their garages to find materials for experiments that the school couldn't provide.

John Kedrowski, the physics teacher who led the students on their project, said he often has to curtail his lesson plans.

"I did the best I could with what I had, but there was a lot I couldn't cover because of the lack of equipment ... you are always pushing against that limit," he said. "A science class without labs is essentially a math class, which means our students are losing out on opportunities."

The documentary cites statistics from the American Association of Physics Teachers that recommend that the average physics class in the U.S. have a budget of about $4,500 per year for a class of 125.

According to the documentary, Kedrowski's class had a budget of $468.75 for 133 students.

Ed Felien teaches chemistry at Denfeld, and last month won the Goldfine Gold Star Teacher award.

"The chemistry lab virtually hasn't been touched for probably 50 years," Felien said. "The room itself is in drastic need of upgrading, and we don't have any budget money to buy equipment with. Our chemical supply money is so limited that we barely can get by."


He said that he and his co-workers occasionally have used their own money to buy needed supplies. They also have benefited from house cleanings elsewhere.

"UMD cleaned out some stuff from their lab and we got it and we got a pretty good supply of chemicals and glassware from the St. Louis County Health Department when they closed their lab," Felien said. "That helped us a lot."

Tim Velner, the science curriculum specialist for the Duluth school district, said the challenges spill across the district's science curriculum. A science class taught at Morgan Park, for example, has to make do in a room without running water.

"They are using five-gallon buckets to bring water in ... we are in the 21st century, and we have science rooms without water," he said. "As you look across most other districts we are struggling to keep pace with our technologies and the dynamic curriculum that should be part of our science program."

The cause, Velner said, is mostly because of limited state money and inefficiencies created by old buildings in the district.

"Form follows function, but if you don't have the right classroom form you can't expect education to function at its best," Velner said. "We have teachers that are trying to figure out how to make a room work instead of delivering curriculum."

The administration is aware of the problem, assistant superintendent Joe Hill said.

"I know we are lacking in space for many of our lab-based classes and we are also concerned about the equipment needs for our students and teachers to have a competitive program," he said.


The district is having science teachers take inventory of their materials to get a better understanding of the gaps and also is hoping the long-range facilities plan will make a significant dent in the problem, Hill said.

Mlodozyniec said she hopes the solution goes beyond that.

"We might have this brand new school, but it will have all this junky equipment inside," she said.

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at shorner@duluth

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