Donations make Ellis Middle School science expansion possible

Published 7:36 am Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Eighth-grader Kristen Carlson, 14, wasn’t very interested in science until she enrolled in a new class that sparked her interest.

“Last year I starting taking the integrated physics class,” said Kristen, who is student council president at Ellis Middle School. “It gave me an opportunity to learn more about physics. Now, definitely I’m more into science.”

Kristen enjoyed building remote-controlled NXT robots and a trebuchet, a catapult-like device they used to launch marshmallows.

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“It was fun to build the trebuchet and perfect the construction,” she said.

She is now taking a similar chemistry course offered for the first time this year.

The two courses are just a taste of what Ellis will be able to offer its students in the future, thanks to four large donations for an $800,000 renovation and expansion project for the school’s science labs and classrooms.

The Hormel Foundation will donate $275,000; Hormel Foods Corp. has pledged $150,000; former Hormel CEO Richard Knowlton is donating $75,000 from the proceeds of his new book; and Austin Packaging Co. is giving $50,000. The district will contribute $250,000; however, officials said the more than 6,000 square-foot project will not require any taxpayer money.

“Many corporations and companies are leaving their local communities… here in Austin, a partner has been created with those companies here,” superintendent David Krenz said during a press conference at Ellis Tuesday morning. “We’ve had a great relationship in the Austin Public School District with working with civic-minding individuals.”

“We’re happy and enjoy being able to give back to the community,” said Jeff Thatcher, chief operating officer at APC. “We’re giving to the future of our community and future of our state.”

“When I think the rest of the nation is suffering from budget problems … we are fortunate,” said Knowlton, who has just released his book, “Points of Difference, Transforming Hormel.”

“It’s a special day for all of us, and we hope it is for all the teaching staff here,” he said.

Knowlton said he hopes the project will “help us catch up,” referring to the United States’ lagging science scores.

“The world has not treated us well in terms of our ranking in sciences,” he said.

The project will include the addition of two new large science labs on the north side of the building totaling 2,668 square-feet. The renovation will include two existing classrooms — one smaller traditional lecture room and an integrated science storage area. There will be an addition of a hallway to connect the new labs to the rest of the building.

Ellis principal Katie Berglund said the science project will affect “all grade levels” — sixth, seventh and eighth — in life science, physical science and physics and chemistry electives.

“The University of Minnesota has advised us on much of our curriculum,” Berglund said.

Ellis’s two new science classes — seventh grade Integrated Physics and Technology and eighth grade Integrated Chemistry and Technology — are “team taught” using two teachers who specialize in different areas of science. For example, ICT is taught by a licensed chemistry teacher and a plastics and metal teacher.

Science department chairman and teacher Tom Fritz said both classes have been very popular; IPT was started last year and ICT began with a full 60 students this fall.

“Many of the kids who were in IPT last year are in that class,” Fritz said. He explained that ICT will cover the “big ideas of chemistry,” like chemical reactions and properties of matter, as well as more labs, like mixing polymers to test elasticity and working with hydrogen cars.

“The main focus right now, at this point, is interesting students in pursuing and exploring science more at the high school level,” Fritz said. Students will have the option of not taking ninth grade physics at Austin High School, and will be allowed to take pre-AP biology instead.

The AHS science department has also benefited from a substantial donation from The Hormel Foundation.

A $1.5 million state-of-the-art science lab and classroom project opened last year at AHS.

The foundation has also donated $1.3 million to the University of Minnesota Fellowship Program for teachers to pursue master’s degrees, and $810,000 for programs of excellence for gifted and talented students.

AHS principal Brad Bergstrom said Tuesday that “as a high school principal, this is like a gift. It’s going to create a better student when they get to the high school.”

Participation is high in Advanced Placement courses at AHS, and the school has been offering more classes to accommodate the demand.

“We’ve established some very high expectations in the areas of science and math,” he said. “We’ve already got a group of students coming through and taking those courses.”

Bergstrom said he believes the science department project at Ellis will have a “spill-over effect” into AHS.

“It’s going to cause us to restructure some things at the high school,” he said. “We’re just totally excited about this. It creates a wonderful challenge for us to solve.”