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Four-Day Field Trip to the Iron Range/Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota

Curricular materials created for the 2017 SAIL seminar:

Wilderness in the Anthropocene

In Spring 2018, we taught ENVI/BIOL 394: Environment, Health & Society. The Iron Range field trip came toward the end of the semester and provided us a chance to integrate many themes from the course with a reflective community learning experience.

This course explored the ways in which health is built and shaped by interactions between (human and non-human) bodies and the natural and built environment (air, water, food and shelter) through the lenses of biological responses, vulnerability of populations, social movements and the communication of science to the public.

Our seminar course engaged students in exploring an interdisciplinary set of paradigms and methods of biological and social analysis, including environmental and occupational epidemiology, geospatial analyses, toxicology, exposure science, biomonitoring, environmental health ethics, environmental justice, and health of vulnerable populations.

We addressed these through the lenses of the following topics and case studies: water/energy and the invisible infrastructures of health, occupational health and safety, vulnerability, environmental toxins, and health impacts of food production, diet and nutrition.

We designed a culminating field trip experience for the 14 students in our course that involved a four- day field trip to the Boundary Waters/Iron Range. Activities included visits to the Accelor Mittal, the Chisholm Minnesota Museum of Mining, the Bois Fort Heritage Center, and Save the Boundary Waters Campaign.

We also met with mining professionals, tribal elders, local civic leaders and environmental activists. As part of the culminating experience for this interdisciplinary course, students took in part in discussions and reflective practices, including discussing the film “North Country,” which depicts sexual harassment in the taconite mining industry.


The learning goals for our field trip module connect with the overall learning goals for our course. They include:

  1. Increased knowledge of environmental health methodologies and applications
  2. Increased ability to recognize and gauge personal, local and global risks and exposures
  3. Engaged with diverse stakeholders and negotiated connected and conflicting narratives of problems and solutions  
  4. Engaged in cross-disciplinary peer-teaching, collaborative problem-solving and translating/bridging between science and policy communities

As part of this course, students also wrote weekly learning responses and maintained a journal of personal environmental exposures relevant to health. These exercises supported our field trip discussions.


At the beginning of the course, we introduced the field trip as a culminating learning experience. Course themes, readings and discussions built up our knowledge and experience to support the field trip. We discussed issues related to water science and toxicity, energy development, risk management, contested illnesses and the “one health” framework.

A week prior to our field trip, we had two guests in class to prepare us for the trip. Poet Tyler Davis, who grew up in Mountain Iron next to an open pit mine, shared her memories and family ties to the region. She also shared a small collection of her poetry. Dr. Bruce Alexander, occupational environmental epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, discussed the MN Taconite Workers Health Study and how it has impacted the industry.  

Fieldtrip Schedule

Thursday April 5

  • Leave Macalester by 9 a.m.  and arrive in Mt. Iron at 12 noon
  • Lunch with IRPS board members Kristin Foster (pastor), Ted Anderson (Minnesota DNR and former mining professional), Steve Manninen (mining inspector) and Brian Bluhm (food justice activist) at Mac’s Bar and Grill
  • Iron Range Discovery Center in Chisholm
  • Dinner in Ely at Boathouse Brew Pub
  • Thors Lodge, Camp Du Nord for the night

Friday, April 6

  • Breakfast at Thors Lodge  
  • Bois Forte Heritage Center
  • Lunch at Shop Coffee House in Virginia. Met with Laurie Potter (Industrial hygienist) and David Trach (Retired mine worker and early mesothelioma activist).
  • Arcelor Mittal Taconite Plant tour
  • Dinner at Thors Lodge, Camp du Nord


Saturday, April 7

  • Breakfast at Thors Lodge  
  • Explore Ely and lunch on their own
  • Meet with Bob Tammen (retired miner and activist) and Levi Lexvold (staff) at Save the Boundary Waters Campaign headquarters
  • Visit Twin Metals testing sites on Birch Lake
  • Dinner at Thors Lodge
  • Watch “North Country” together
  • Sauna option


Sunday, April 8

  • Breakfast at Thors Lodge
  • Field trip survey
  • Final culminating discussion

Teaching Notes

This four-day field trip is designed for an interdisciplinary seminar of students, who have had requisite coursework in environmental policy or biology/public health (a very small group of students may have had both). We covered a range of topics: mesothelioma as a contested illness, the environmental impacts of sulfide mining, history of the Boundary waters, and how wilderness experiences contribute to health and wellness.   

Macalester has existing strengths in both environmental studies and community and global health.  Our proximity to the Iron Range/Boundary Waters makes this intensive field trip possible (a three- to four- hour drive). However, for those at a distance, we believe our field trip model might inspire similar excursions. We blended student-led discussions, reflective practice and expert presentations. Finally, our goal was that this was a community-building opportunity for our students and helped them integrate our more general course themes and assignments holistically.

We asked our students to keep an exposure journal throughout the semester to record their daily environmental exposures through food, water, air and household/work/school surroundings. The goal was to help students make connections between personal and population-level exposures, vulnerabilities and health outcomes. This primed them to connect individual and community experiences to the health risks and outcomes they encountered on the field trip.  

Resources & Materials

Outcomes and Significance

In addition to our end-of-the-year course evaluation, we asked students to complete a field trip survey before we departed for home. Below, we have summarized their responses to a series of questions.

There was no specific assignment for the field trip. Instead, we were modeling interdisciplinary modes for engaging in an environmental health controversy. During our culminating discussion during our field trip, we asked students to consider how they might apply the insights we gained through our deep dive into Iron Range/Boundary water issues toward the final projects they were developing for the course.

Students were preparing an environmental health controversy study and to negotiate science/society/policy boundaries. Their responses to the below questions represent the immediate field trip experiences but in the context to semester-long discussions and the final project assignment. Please see the course syllabus for more context.

1. How did our time on the Iron Range deepen your understanding of the occupational and environmental health dimensions of the mining controversy?

  • After meeting miners, for the first time I truly, deeply understood their lifestyle and reasons for wanting the mining industry to continue, despite the innate environmental and occupational health risks of their profession.
  • Being on the Iron Range gave me a greater sense of how difficult it is/would be to overcome many of the occupational and environmental health dimensions of mining-solving them or mitigating them must be placed in the context of multiple interest groups, culture, socioeconomic status, and history

2. How did the field trip deepen your understanding of how communities sustain place over generations?

  • I had never given much thought to what it means to be a Ranger, and this trip helped me to see the importance and prominence of that identity. Talking to our guests also helped me to think about how places change over time, and yet people’s perceptions of those places are perhaps slower to change! I was especially interested in the fact that mining provides a relatively small part of jobs/economy, and yet it is so central to identity.
  • I think that this field trip was ultimately about institutions and the maintenance of power and it is interesting to learn about the role of corporations in the construction of identities. These are huge aspects in how these communities sustain place over generations.

3. How did your field trip experience expand your sense of “exposures”?

  • Being near the mine and in the plant was the most informative and transformative part of the trip. It is one thing to actually see, smell, and hear the daily exposures that people working there experience.
  • Hearing Dave talk about mesothelioma in his friends and fellow mine workers – this did add a level of humanity to the otherwise ‘purely numbers’ case we learned about.
  • This trip helped me think more about “are same exposures worth it?” and how much risk people are willing to assume in order to do their jobs. It was interesting to breathe at the plant and notice the smells and dust then think about working there every day.
  • Before this trip, I never would have thought to add patriarchal power structures or the sexism I experience in my exposure journal. Last night’s discussion on North Country made it clear that this is an exposure, and that racism and sexism are very much issues of public health and occupational hazards.

4. How did our field trip make you reconsider the challenges of translating science + policy across interest groups?

  • It helped me to feel on a deeper level how problematic the rhetoric used by save the Boundary Waters and others can be, because I was able to humanize the miners and other members of the range community. It also helped me to see who was left out of the conversation—> I was especially struck by the ways that native groups were really left out of the conversation— most of the maps I saw didn’t include reservations, for example.
  • I felt like every one of our guest speakers could have benefited our group and learning openly what everyone else has had to say…It was incredibly evident that each group of person was telling their own version of the story, an tha that was the version they expected from everyone. I didn’t expect to see this so clearly and that I would be able to empathize with each person and feel that they were ‘correct’ in their ways. Definitely also worth mentioning was the lack of communication with/ inclusion of the native communities, which seems (to an outsider) as an obvious first step in moving forward.
  • You need to understand place and culture if you are going to be that person who translates- the way you translate will be dependent on that- The “danger of using story”- there is that rise o only telling one side of this complex narrative, so as translator we need to take all into account to draw our own conclusions.

5. What was your favorite visitor/experience on our trip?

  • My favorite experience was touring the taconite plant and getting to hear from so many people connected to the mining industry. It was a completely new experience for the to be inside the tac plant to actually see how the ore is processed, and I was so grateful that Robb was willing to talk to us and share his story.
  • Overall this trip helped me to gain a better understanding of what it means to be Minnesotan and American. The people here have different experiences from me in a lot of ways, so it was great to hear about their perceptions of what is important.
  • Bob and Pat! I was so impressed by the activism they were performing at their age, Those are the ones that inspire us to take this work forward.
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