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Eighth-graders focus on building, detail and design during National Engineer’s Week

The most minuscule of details can make the difference between success and fiasco in the field of engineering.

It was a lesson some four dozen eighth-graders learned firsthand on Wednesday, testing their skills in comprehension, teamwork and design during a National Engineering Week activity at Trane, held in collaboration with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the Coulee Subsection of IEEE.

Tasked with constructing a LEGO car, select students from Logan Middle School, Lincoln Middle School, Mount Calvary Grace Lutheran and First Evangelical Lutheran School broke into small groups, each guided by a Trane engineer, to develop a product both fast and stylish — an assignment complicated by the need for duplicability.

Throughout the building process, each group kept a meticulous record of each step, detailed in a list of instructions to be given to an engineer, acting as a robot to re-create the vehicle using only the words written down. The exercise proved harder than expected, with most teams successful in creating a functional, aesthetically pleasing car but falling short in the clarity of their instructions.

“It’s kind of a struggle to explain it,” said Mt. Calvary Grace student Jude Gilbertson, his team becoming mildly frustrated as they worked to agree on the proper terms to explain their process. “We’re trying to use big, understandable words.”

Each car required a minimum of 15 pieces, with room for a LEGO driver inside the vehicle. LEGOs were chosen for the “fun” factor, said marketing engineer Caitlin Bohnert, with the exercise introducing students to the basics of engineering.

“The logical instruction-writing lends itself to computer programming,” Bohnert said. “The project also has an element of creativity to it. I’m hoping they get a good idea of what a career in engineering looks like and, if it’s something they are interested in, encouraging them to pursue it.”

Product support engineer Charlie Jelen, who served as “robot” for Gilbertson’s team, was encouraged to see the number of female students participating in the event, each of those present chosen by a teacher or principal for their interest in science, technology, engineering and math related courses and careers. Additionally, Jelen believes eighth grade is an ideal time for students to explore opportunities and aspirations for the future.

“I think it’s exciting,” Jelen said. “I think everyone is interested in pushing this, especially with the level of publicity STEM is getting nationwide.”

LEGOs are a popular element in youth STEM activities, and Jelen was impressed with his group’s building instructions, reconstructing their vehicle with relative ease, save for one critical detail.

“The driver wasn’t supposed to be sideways!” Gilbertson said, watching as their directions led Jelen to place his LEGO person facing away from the steering wheel. “We need (to write) ‘front-facing driver.’”

“I’m not sure where this guy learned to drive,” Jelen laughed, noting, “This gives them a really good idea of what it means to be detailed enough to make it happen.”

Rewriting their directions, with an emphasis on terms including “parallel” and “forward,” the team proved more successful the second time around, with only a single block slightly out of place and the driver in his proper position.

Teams were scored on the accuracy of their replica car, along with a prize for “coolness” factor and another for speed down a ramp, with the activity followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of the Trane laboratory and acoustics facility. Gilbertson wasn’t sure how his team would place, but he was hopeful for a top prize.

“It’d be really nice to win,” Gilbertson said. “I’m not going to like, sabotage to win, but it would be nice to win.”

Angry teens swarm into Florida Capitol, demand new gun laws

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A week after a shooter slaughtered 17 people in a Florida high school, thousands of protesters, including many angry teenagers, swarmed into the state Capitol on Wednesday, calling for changes to gun laws, a ban on assault-type weapons and improved care for the mentally ill.

The normally staid Florida Statehouse filled with students, among them more than 100 survivors of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, on the edge of the Everglades. They held signs, chanted slogans and burst into lawmakers’ offices demanding to be heard.

The teens were welcomed into the gun-friendly halls of power, but the students’ top goal — a ban on assault-style rifles such as the weapon used in the massacre — was taken off the table a day earlier, although more limited measures are still possible.

Many protesters complained that lawmakers were not serious about reform, and they said they would oppose in future elections any legislator who accepts campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.

“We’ve spoke to only a few legislators and ... the most we’ve gotten out of them is, ‘We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You are so strong. You are so powerful,’” said Delaney Tarr, a senior at the high school. “We know what we want. We want gun reform. We want commonsense gun laws. ... We want change.”

She added: “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers. If you supported us, you would have made a change long ago. So this is to every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. We are coming after you. We are coming after every single one of you, demanding that you take action.”

Outside the building, the crowd burst into chants of “Vote them out!” as speakers called for the removal of Republican lawmakers who refuse to address gun control issues. One sign read, “Remember the men who value the NRA over children’s lives” and then listed Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation. Other signs said, “Kill the NRA, not our kids” and “These kids are braver than the GOP.”

About 30 people left an anti-gun rally outside Florida’s Old Capitol and began a sit-in protest at the office of four House Republican leaders, demanding a conversation about gun legislation.

“They’re not speaking to us right now. We only asked for five minutes and so we’re just sitting until they speak,” Tyrah Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore at Leon High School, which is within walking distance of the Capitol.

In Washington, students and parents delivered emotional appeals to President Donald Trump to act on school safety and guns. The president promised to be “very strong on background checks,” adding that “we’re going to do plenty of other things.”

And at a news conference Wednesday, Broward County, Florida, Sheriff Scott Israel ordered all deputies who qualify to begin carrying rifles on school grounds. The rifles will be locked in patrol cars when not in use until the agency secures gun lockers and lockers, he said.

“We need to be able to defeat any threat that comes into campus,” Israel said.

The sheriff said the school superintendent fully supported his decision.

Marjory Stoneman’s school resource office was carrying a weapon when the shooting happened last week, but did not discharge his firearm. It’s unclear what role he played in the shooting. The sheriff said those details are still being investigated.

Meanwhile, in a wave of demonstrations reaching from Arizona to Maine, students at dozens of U.S. high schools walked out of class Wednesday to protest gun violence and honor the victims of last week’s deadly shooting in Florida.

The protests spread from school to school as students shared plans for their demonstrations over social media. Many lasted 17 minutes in honor of the 17 people killed one week earlier at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Hundreds of students from Maryland schools left class to rally at the U.S. Capitol. Hundreds more filed out of their schools in cities from Chicago to Pittsburgh to Austin, Texas, often at the lunch hour.

Also Wednesday, teens in at least a dozen South Florida schools walked out of class to protest gun violence and commemorate the shooting victims. About 2,000 students, parents, teachers and supporters held hands and chanted outside the Parkland campus.

The suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, has been jailed on 17 counts of murder. Defense attorneys, state records and people who knew him indicate that he displayed behavioral troubles for years, including getting kicked out of the Parkland school. He owned a collection of weapons.

“How is it possible that this boy that we all knew was clearly disturbed was able to get an assault rifle, military grade, and come to our school and try to kill us?” one 16-year-old student asked the president of the state Senate, Joe Negron.

Negron did not answer directly. “That’s an issue that we’re reviewing,” he said.

When another lawmaker said he supported raising the age to buy assault-style weapons to 21 from 18, the students broke into applause.

Florida lawmakers have rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999.


Holmen High School senior Reed Williams (back) wrestles Sparta's Hayden Krein in a 160-pound meet earlier this season. Williams is one of 10 qualifiers the Vikings have in this weekend's WIAA individual state meet in Madison, and Krein is a four-time qualifier.

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La Crosse County school leaders balk at talk of teachers carrying guns


Fran Finco

While the Wisconsin attorney general and two legislators have indicated openness to allowing teachers and other school staffers to carry guns, area school officials have qualms of varying degrees about packing heat.

Their reactions vary from opposition, to the need for community discussion before taking such a drastic step, to chagrin that society has devolved so much the conversation is even necessary.

The school officials voiced their opinions in reaction to questions about Attorney General Brad Schimel’s comments Tuesday to radio station WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ statements at a press conference indicating their willingness to discuss the issue and pay to train teachers for gunnery if a measure passed.

On Monday, state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, proposed a bill to allow weapons in private schools that want them as a pilot project. It could be expanded to public schools if it proves worthwhile, he said.

No bills will be considered this legislative session, which is winding down.

Of course, the driving force behind those comments and the proposed bill was the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Fla., when a former student armed with an AR-15 killed 14 students and three teachers.

Ted Knutson, president of Aquinas Catholic Schools in La Crosse and Onalaska, said he doesn’t want guns on the campuses, although he stressed that is his opinion and not a formal position of the system’s board.

“I am not in favor of guns in schools,” Knutson said during an interview Wednesday. “I would not have a problem with a greater presence of law enforcement in schools.”

Although Aquinas High and Middle schools and the elementary schools in the system do not have police officers on campus, as many public schools do, city police officers present programs in the schools, and neighborhood resource officers check in periodically, he said.

“These are tough times, and doing nothing is not the strategy to use,” Knutson said.

Like public schools, those in the Catholic system have strict security protocols in which visitors must buzz in and go through adult screening before gaining access to students.

La Crosse School District Superintendent Randy Nelson balked at the idea of staffers toting guns, saying, “For many of our students, school is the safest place they have. It seems counterintuitive to suggest” that schools need armed guards.

“It’s discouraging, and a sad statement” that conditions have reached this point, Nelson said.

“We have spent, over the past several years, millions of dollars upgrading our facilities” with security measures, he said.

The district’s high schools and middle schools have police resource officers who also are on call for the elementary schools, he said.

At the same time, Nelson cautioned, “Nothing is infallible.”

If a bill passed providing the option, and it didn’t cost the schools additional money, “then we’d have to have that discussion,” said Fran Finco, superintendent of the Onalaska School District.

Any such talks would have to include not only the school board but the entire community, Finco said.

“What does that mean? Put somebody with a gun at every door?” he said.

Access during regular school hours already is restricted to those who have an entry fob or are buzzed in, he said.

“Another thing that people probably don’t think about is that the locks come off after school,” Finco said. “Where’s the security for intramural programs” and other after- and before-school programs?

“The unfortunate thing is why is it a societal problem that schools have to fix?” he said.

Finco noted the sad irony that the slaughter last week came at a school named for Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who was a journalist, author and activist whose causes included women’s right to vote, children’s health and defense of the Everglades against ruination. A Minneapolis native, Stoneman Douglas died in 1998 at the age of 108.

“Knowing her background … for holistic health care and child welfare, she’d want us to fix our societal problems,” he said.

Finco referred to one of Stoneman Douglas’s oft-cited quotes as illustrating her concern for children, “Child welfare ought really to cover all sorts of topics, such as better water and sanitation and good roads, and clean streets and public parks and playgrounds.”

Dairyland's proposed NG plant gets pushback from Minnesota

Minnesota consumer and environmental groups are pushing back against Dairyland Power’s proposal to build a $700 million natural gas power plant in Superior.

The Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, which represents utility customers, released survey results Wednesday that said more than three quarters of Minnesota Power’s customers oppose the utility’s plans for the 525-megawatt Nemadji Trail Energy Center, which would be jointly owned by the La Crosse-based cooperative.

Meanwhile, groups representing large industries and clean energy advocates agree that Minnesota Power hasn’t justified the need for the plant and hasn’t considered cheaper alternatives.

“People in the region are concerned about their finances, and they don’t want their energy bills to go up to pay for a power plant unless it’s absolutely necessary,” CUB executive director Annie Levenson-Falk said in a news release. “Right now, it looks like there are more cost-effective options.”

Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power manager of corporate communications, said the utility thinks the plant is the most economical way to meet its goal of reducing reliance on coal.

“We think there’s a need,” she said. “It will be up to us to demonstrate that to our Minnesota regulators.”

Under the terms of a proposal announced in June, Dairyland Power would construct the plant in partnership with Minnesota Power. The utilities would share equally in the power and generating capacity.

A subsidiary of the investor-owned ALLETE, Minnesota Power is based in Duluth and serves about 145,000 customers in northeastern Minnesota. Dairyland, with $1.6 billion in generation assets, provides electricity for about 258,000 customers of 41 member cooperatives and municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

Dairyland spokeswoman Katie Thomson said the questions and concerns are “part of the democratic process.”

“It’s good public discussion,” she said.

In a November poll of more than 550 randomly selected Minnesota Power customers conducted by the CUB, 77 percent said they were opposed to their utility building a new plant when told if built, “the electricity you use could cost you significantly more each year.”

The same survey found 74 percent of customers were unfamiliar with the proposal.

Opposition from industry and green groups

Minnesota regulators are considering whether Minnesota Power’s proposal is necessary and reasonable based on forecast demand, cost and alternatives. Only Wisconsin-based entities can own power plants in the state, so Minnesota Power is proposing to create a spin-off company, which requires approval of the PUC.

Dairyland CEO Barb Nick said the project would help support nearly 200 megawatts of renewable resources Dairyland has added to its portfolio since 2016. Minnesota Power makes similar arguments in its application.

New natural gas-fired generators are designed for quick startup and can efficiently respond to fluctuations in demand, making them a good complement to solar and wind, which have no fuel costs but don’t necessarily generate power when it’s needed. When the wind dies down or clouds cover the sun, operators can call on natural gas plants to fill in.

But Minnesota Power doesn’t need a gas plant to balance renewable energy, according to Michael Jacobs, an energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists who filed comments on behalf of clean-energy organizations.

Both utilities have plenty of “dispatchable resources” to support their renewable investments, said Leigh Currie, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which is representing the Sierra Club, Wind on the Wires and Fresh Energy in the case.

“It would be a different question if we were asking a utility to go 100 percent renewable and they said we need some gas,” Currie said. “That’s not the case with Dairyland and Minnesota Power.”

Michael Gorman, a consultant for a coalition of mines, paper mills and pipeline company Enbridge, who collectively purchase about two-thirds of the utility’s electricity, came to a similar conclusion.

Consultants for both industry and green groups argue Minnesota Power has exaggerated its capacity needs and that even the company’s own projections show the Nemadji Trail project would result in excess capacity.

“We think this resource is needed,” Rutledge said. “We don’t think we can compromise reliability.”

An analyst for the Minnesota Department of Commerce raised questions about the bidding process, which he said make it impossible to tell whether the cost of the plant is in the public interest.

Clean-energy advocates also argue the proposal would discourage energy conservation and investments in renewable generation while sinking money into a fossil-fuel plant with a 40-year lifespan.

“We’re concerned that’s the wrong place to continue investing our resources,” Currie said. “We’re interested in building a cleaner grid of the future.”

At the national level, electricity producers have been retiring coal plants in favor of lower-cost natural gas, which emits fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases. But environmental groups say this plant isn’t needed to replace any coal-fired generation.

“It’s not a replacement for coal, it’s a way to meet new growth,” Currie said. “The analysis should be how should the system meet the overall needs ... that’s the analysis they haven’t done.”

A judge will hear public testimony Wednesday in Duluth and is expected to make a recommendation to the Public Utilities Commission this summer.

The plant will also require approval from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Thomson said Dairyland plans to submit an application this summer.

Rutledge said the partnership with Dairyland provided an economy of scale that Minnesota Power couldn’t have achieved on its own.

Thomson wouldn’t say whether Dairyland could continue to pursue the project should Minnesota Power fail to get approval.

“I really can’t speculate,” she said. “Dairyland and Minnesota Power are great partners.”