A Vision to Promote STEM at a Former Superfund Site

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Where others saw a decaying, 2,400-acre ammunition plant, closed for nearly 40 years, Cummins’ Prad Pathirana saw an opportunity to introduce STEM to public school students.

And that’s precisely what’s happening now that the former plant, near Cummins Power Generation in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) north metro, was removed in 2015 from the Superfund list of the United States’ worst environmental sites.

Working with Pathirana and other Cummins employees, the Mounds View Public School District has turned the vacant space into a real-world classroom, where students are performing environmental studies as public officials redevelop the site of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant built in 1941.

“It took Prad getting on board to push that into high gear and to look into other ways of getting involved in our district,” said Mindy Handberg, Executive Director of the Mounds View Schools Education Foundation. “He is always pushing us to think about how we manage, implement and create our projects here.”

No stranger to project management, Pathirana kept the project moving forward with tasks, timelines and status meetings. Lab equipment fills the portable classroom trailer thanks to a grant from the Cummins Foundation that Pathirana pursued. He engaged his co-workers along the way: Safety professionals performed a safety audit, and the sales team at nearby distributor Cummins NPower sized the trailer’s generator set. At the start of the 2015-16 schoolyear, a group of employees volunteered their time to ready the trailer for students.

For Pathirana, it represents the latest achievement since he joined the company’s Community Involvement Team four years ago to build a relationship with the school district.

“I wanted to start small and do something that you could build up,” said Pathirana, an Aftermarket VPI Lead for Cummins Power Generation.

The outdoor classroom project was a natural fit for Cummins… The Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant was a staple in the community, with 26,000 workers at peak production – more than half women.

He got that and more. Pathirana and his co-workers have ramped up activities that get employees working alongside students, from judging science fairs to building full-size LEGO models of a Cummins engine to starting a high school internship program. During one meeting, Pathirana challenged school district leaders to think about an environmental problem they could tackle together with the CIT, capitalizing on their mutual appetites for STEM education.

The outdoor classroom project was a natural fit for Cummins. Nestled between Power Generation’s manufacturing plant in Fridley and its global headquarters in Shoreview, the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant was a staple in the community with 26,000 workers at peak production – more than half women. The plant closed when World War II ended, reopening briefly for the Korean and Vietnam wars before permanently shutting down in 1976. It was designated a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Site a few years later.

Developers want to include youth perspectives as they plan the commercial, retail, residential and green spaces they hope to develop at the site, and students have already submitted proposals.

School officials believe students will feel the impact of their work at the site for a long time.

“We had sixth-graders there this fall looking at bird and insect populations,” said Mounds View Science Coach Shane Wood. “If that sparks an interest later in their high school years, (maybe) they take an environmental science class. Then in the future, some of these students will live in the future developments that will take place, and they have a historical background knowledge on what has happened on the site.”

Cummins plans to stay involved, too. Employees in engineering, marketing and other parts of the business may help develop curriculum, or be invited as guest speakers, Pathirana said.

School officials are excited about the possibilities. As the site develops – perhaps a solar panel farm here and a history center there – the curriculum is bound to evolve with it. And since the classroom is mobile, it can literally move somewhere else within the 2,400 acres. Wood, the science coach, said there is much to be learned as students wrap up their first year.

“We haven’t come close to realizing all of the possibilities out there,” he said.

Student Use of Outdoor Classroom

Here’s a look at student activity at the site in the 2015-2016 academic year: 

  • 453 students have been on the site so far this year (as of Jan. 22, 2016) from two high schools and three middle schools.
  • 17 testing capabilities of the classroom, from soil and water quality to animal populations, with about 100 test samples.

Editor’s Note: This article was authored by Elena Dooley, Global Marketing Communications Specialist, Cummins Power Generation. 

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