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Stevens FORWARD! -- Green mentorship already red-hot idea

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Stevens FORWARD! was presented with a check for $11,000 on Earth Day, April 22, from the West Central Clean Energy Resource Team to help carry out actions on its Destiny Drivers related to green and energy alternative initiatives. From left are Steve Wagner, USDA Soils Lab; Joel Haskard, U of M CERTS Coordinator; Sal Monteagudo, Stevens Forward; John Jones, Stevens Forward; and Roger McCannon, Stevens Forward.2 / 2

By Philip Drown

For the Sun Tribune

It is no secret that the development and incorporation of environmentally friendly or "green technologies" into business and community infrastructures is fast becoming the industry of the future.

Positioning Stevens County to capitalize on this trend, while making significant investments into the educational and professional future of its young people, is the goal of one of Stevens FORWARD!'s 14 Destiny Drivers.

The Destiny Driver says that "By 2010, we will create a Green Internship / Mentor Program that will support 20 high school and college students per year."

At a clean energy workshop last week, Stevens FORWARD! was presented with an $11,000 grant from the Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) project, that will put them well on their way toward achieving that goal.

The grant will be used to fund several student internships, at both the secondary and higher education levels, with businesses, local government agencies, and organizations throughout the county. The internships will focus on some aspect of environmental need or interest requested by the organization.

"The future of our area depends on our youth," said Roger McCannon, Coordinator of Stevens FORWARD! "This gets our youth involved in green initiatives and energy saving through alternative means."

According to McCannon, these mentorships will allow students to engage in practical application of environmental learning outside the classroom, while helping area organizations achieve real-world environmental goals.

Steve Wagner, an electrical engineer with the USDA Soils Lab in Morris, is on the CERTs Steering Committee in the west-central area of the state, and was instrumental in getting the grant for Stevens FORWARD!

"The Stevens FORWARD! Group had several of these drivers dealing with the environment," Wagner said. "It was just a good thing to do for the community to put these two groups together".

The Minnesota CERTs project, which was launched in 2003, wants to help strengthen communities and generate local jobs by leveraging opportunities available through the implementation of secure, clean, and reliable energy technologies. They seek to support and develop clean energy networks in communities between a wide array of groups including businesses, farmers, local governments, educational institutions, environmental groups, and individuals.

According to their web site the CERTs project "connects people with the technical resources needed to identify and implement community-scale energy efficiency and clean energy projects."

The CERTs project is funded by the Office of Energy Security, Minnesota Department of Commerce, the Blandin Foundation, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, University of Minnesota Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment, University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

In addition to the internships, some of the $11,000 grant will be used to conduct several energy audits for individuals and businesses in the area, Wagner said. Local contractors will be hired to assess a site and determine what green technologies could be incorporated into the location, as well as what costs and factors must be considered in the process.

Another arm of the internship portion of the initiative involves a new Environmental Studies major launched this year at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Peter Wyckoff, Associate Professor of Biology and the current Coordinator of the Environmental Studies major, has been working with others for the past few years to develop this new arena of study. Interest by students in this major has already exceeded the early expectations.

"We have 45 students declared in this program already," Wyckoff said. "Part of the curriculum requires every student get practical field internship experience."

The project recently received an "Engaged Department Grant" through the University of Minnesota internal grants system. The grant is intended to help University departments connect with the community on projects of interest. With these funds, they are beginning to create new local networks and will be able to supply local organizations with students who can do practical, environmentally related work, while they themselves gain valuable experience.

"The grant is about developing additional partnerships," Wyckoff said. "We are making contact with local groups now who could provide useful experience and would gain from having our students work with them."

Wyckoff said they are now in the process of contacting businesses and organizations who either work in a specific environmental field or are attempting to improve their own environmental footprint. From this initial list of entities, they intend to collaborate with them to provide a mutually beneficial arrangement.

What these students can do for the organization will vary depending upon organizational need and the interest and skill set of the student.

"We have students with different sorts of backgrounds," Wyckoff said. "We have some students with statistical skills, some students with media and web skills, and some students with specific biology, or hydrology, or geology skills.

Troy Goodnough, UMM Campus Sustainability Coordinator, is also deeply involved in the internships and is anticipating good collaboration with community organizations. Goodnough envisions many possible needs that may be expressed by the community partners, but he also emphasized that it is the community who will determine what projects the university and students will assist with, and not vice versa.

Goodnough could imagine some projects involving a community determining whether or not a solar thermal project might be right for them; or a business that is trying to improve their operating conditions and practices to be more environmentally sound; or perhaps a business is already making strides in this area and would like some assistance marketing that environmental aspect of their company.

"We're all curious to see what emerges from the communities," Goodnough said.