June 7, 2008
Denfeld students eager to learn, but not
with outdated equipment
By Sarah Horner
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 It includes photos of outdated equipment and deteriorating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
John Kedrowski, the physics teacher who led the
students on their project, said he often has to curtail his lesson
“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
“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
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,”
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
“We might have this brand new school, but
it will have all this junky equipment inside,” she said.