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SD Department of Education March 2015  


TEACHER FEATURE: Robin Cochran Dirksen

Lead-Deadwood project named state finalist in Samsung contest

Robin Cochran Dirksen teaches science at Lead-Deadwood High School. She loves growing two things: plants and scientists. In the Englewood Springs Botanical Area near Whitewood Creek, she’s trying to do both with a project that engages students at all grade levels. She describes it as place-based learning that melds social, environmental and health concerns.

The project was named this year’s state finalist in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest, earning more than $20,000 in technology for the Lead-Deadwood School District.

Over the life of the Homestake Mine, the mine discharged approximately 100 million tons of contaminants into Whitewood Creek, once placing it among the most contaminated watersheds in the country, unable to support so much as algae growth.

Since 2008, Dirksen has been using the site as a sort of outdoor laboratory to teach students about the impact 100 years of mining has had on the local watershed and ecosystem. Students learn about the power of remediation to address and mitigate the effects of these activities by monitoring and replanting indigenous plants.

In addition, students have begun an online herbarium of plants used in the Oceti Sakowin cultures. The herbarium includes pictures of plants, along with their scientific names, Lakota names, and information on any research students have done on the plants. In the future, Dirksen hopes to take video of Lakota elders talking about the various plants’ traditional uses.

Several agencies collaborate with Dirksen and her students in the Whitewood Creek area. “We don’t do anything without expert oversight,” she says. Among the agencies involved are the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Hills Ranger District and the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Dr. Mark Gabel, botanist at Black Hills State University, has advised on the project as well.

Dirksen has also worked with Technology and Innovation in Education (TIE) to get the herbarium on the WoLakota Project website, along with other information on the remediation project and how the work connects to the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards.

Dirksen teaches advanced biology and chemistry. She has previously taught AP Chemistry for the South Dakota Virtual School. She teaches STEM Research in collaboration with the Sanford Underground Research Facility, and is an adjunct instructor at Black Hills State University. In almost everything she teaches, she tries to incorporate the Whitewood Creek project into the curriculum.

Younger students get involved, too, which provides older students an opportunity for mentoring. Elementary students have started plants for the site in their classrooms. Middle school students have helped with pulling weeds and planting on-site. It’s Dirksen’s hope that by getting young students involved, they’ll maintain interest in the site and project throughout their time in the Lead-Deadwood School District.

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