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Students travel to Steger Wilderness Center for hands-on carpentry experience

Green building practices and northern carpentry in Ely, MN

For over a decade, Summit Academy OIC has been in partnership with the Steger Wilderness Center, an initiative of the Will Steger Foundation, founded by the famed polar explorer to highlight sustainability issues and educate the public about environmentally-conscious construction. Summit Carpentry program students have had the opportunity to participate in a week-long (now expanded to a two-week-long) project at the Steger Center, connecting with nature and practicing real-world construction skills with experienced craftspeople in the industry.


“Three months after I got hired, I was told to take a group of eight students up to Ely, Minnesota, to the Steger Wilderness Center and build a cabin,” said Carpentry instructor, Beth Halverson. She has been taking students to the Steger Center since 2014. “Ever since that first trip, I fell in love with the program. The people up there are fantastic.”


Using recycled materials, powering all tools with solar, and utilizing energy-efficient construction best practices, students are exposed to the cutting edge of energy efficiency and green building. “We got to Steger, and it was this open space with just gravel. We started building an outdoor kitchen structure from the ground up,” said Leslee Youngren ‘22. “It was just so cool to see something take shape and know that you had your hands in every part of it.”


Ben Grave ’22 appreciated the mentorship he formed during his two weeks at the Steger Center. “I really enjoyed working with the other carpenters who do this for a living. The energy they bring to the job site is really awesome, and it gives you an idea of what practicing carpentry looks like when you do it professionally,” said Grave.


Over the years, Summit students have helped repair docks, build dovetail and notch log cabins, experience metal roofing, tile work, concrete work, sheet rocking, and more. “Not only do students get to work 1:1 with instructors, but master carpenters come up, and students work alongside them. That’s a huge advantage. They have a lot more attention given to them,” said Halverson.


The Steger Center trips also provide students an opportunity to explore rural Minnesota. Students canoe, kayak, hike, fish, play games, and spend time together around bonfires. This trip also sparks and reinforces students’ interests in northern carpentry.


Grave felt particularly connected to how the Steger Center highlights environmental design and construction. “My end goal is a little different from some folks. I’d like to make as much of my living from my property and the woods around me. Permaculture is what I’m shooting for,” said Grave. Currently, Grave is using his carpentry training to build a new home for himself and his family on a piece of land he purchased in Grand Marais, Minnesota.


“When the students come back to Summit, it’s incredible to see them. Their chests are pumped out, and the other students can see what they did,” said Halverson. “They get so much exposure to many items of carpentry, and it’s just a matter of self-confidence that they come back with.”


This summer, Summit will expand the Steger internship opportunity with the support of a grant from CenterPoint Energy. This grant will provide paid stipends for seven internship rounds consisting of ten students each, including internship rounds specifically centered on underrepresented populations in construction, including women of color. Together, with partnerships like these, we can make a positive impact on the workforce and economic development in our community.

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