Every year, Prairie Wind Middle School earth science teacher Rondi Ulmer helps alert three or four local families to contaminants in their drinking water, thanks to a home water testing unit she leads with her eighth grade students.
Her students take test kits home to collect water samples and then later, back in the classroom, they test the water for contaminants. The project not only benefits those families but also the Perham area community as a whole and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's local Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Ulmer has partnered with the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District, or SWCD, on the water testing project for the past 27 years.
Largely because of that project, she was named this year's Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts Teacher of the Year.
She said she considers herself “lucky” to have won. Middle school Principal Scott Bjerke said the award is well-deserved, as Ulmer has had a “huge imprint on our science department over the years.”
“It’s awesome to be recognized," Ulmer said. "Did I test water for 27 years hoping to get this? Never crossed my mind. Is it cool for me the day we test water and these kids’ faces are absolutely beaming and (they're saying) ‘My water’s at zero’ and ‘What is your water’ and ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really high what are we going to do?’ … That’s why I do it.”
Every year during the project, East Otter Tail SWCD staff visits Ulmer's class to make a presentation to the students. They provide the testing equipment and help the kids test their samples. The testing results are shared with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, or MDA, for mapping and monitoring of groundwater issues.
Ulmer said creating a map of the private wells and analyzing the data, whether the MDA has time to sort through it or not, helps students see the bigger picture beyond their school project.
“It’s really awesome that the kids get to do real research,” she said. “They can write a lab report for me, but they are collecting data, and they are doing it consistently and up to lab standard and protocol.”
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But how did Ulmer get into water testing in the first place? That starts with her “roundabout” entrance to teaching, which surprised her since she had always planned to be a veterinarian.
While earning her biology degree at North Dakota State University, she didn’t make it into the vet program when she hoped to. So during a year off, she dove into research. And thanks to an NDSU advisor, she fell in love with education courses.
From then on, Ulmer pursued teaching as her preferred path. After college, she spent her first three years at the Borup School District. She remembers donning her suit for the job interview at a Cenex gas station before walking into a conversation that changed her life. When the school later closed, the entire high school staff — including Ulmer, who was pregnant at the time — lost their jobs.
Sometime after that, Katie Krueger, who was previously the Borup principal and then became the principal at Perham's Prairie Wind, called Ulmer with the news that, “We need to open some more sections in science here,” and Ulmer began her 30 years of teaching in the Perham-Dent School District. She taught at the high school for a few years before the state extended the requirements for middle school earth science from a half-year to a full year.
“I love eighth grade,” Ulmer said. “I love science. So I get to come to school every day and teach something that I love to kids that I love, and so you could say that I’ve rarely worked a day in my life. There’s days in teaching that are better than others … but for the most part, I have not ever disliked my job or wished that I was somewhere else, at least not for very long.”
The high school had tested water for the cause of algae blooms and dead fish with the Big Pine Lakes Water Association, United States Geological Survey and MDA, and those water tests made a splash in the community. Eighth graders got in on the water testing action after Perham's water had arsenic contamination.
“Perham has had a lot of water issues in their history,” Ulmer remarked.
The eighth graders' data took a few years to be used, since placing their wells' locations on a topographic map wasn’t easy. But with the rise of GPS, the data was eventually included. After some initial fear and uncertainty about the water testing in 1993, especially around the issue of nitrates in the water, Ulmer said the rewards of the project began to shine through.
“This whole nitrate business was a pretty touchy subject in the community, and I had a number of parents that did not want their kids to report anything about their water because they were farmers or they were irrigators, and I think a lot of them really felt targeted in the water problem issue,” Ulmer said. “That has taken a lot of years, to dispel those ideas and those rumors.”
Students learn about arsenic and nitrate issues in the local water supply as part of their final project for the water unit. It's challenging for students, but Ulmer has no doubts in their abilities to do the work. She sets high standards and rigor for every student.
“She really prepares these kids for the high school. She’s very structured and rigid but she’s also a master at what she does,” Bjerke said. “Kids are lucky to be able to go through her classroom.”
As a traveler and adventurer, Ulmer has pictures of national parks and scenic sights from around the U.S. displayed in her classroom, along with topographic models, a map of the class's water testing locations and posters about the Earth’s structure. She, her husband and their three children often explored the outdoors together when the kids were younger.
With the 2021-22 school year set to be Ulmer’s last, she is looking forward to her next adventure, rafting through the Grand Canyon in the glory of rocks and water. She's also excited to spend more time with her family.
“When I travel, it’s to rocks and rock layers and glaciers, that’s what I love,” Ulmer said. "And to be able to share that with kids that are excited...is unbelievably remarkable to be able to do.”
Previously, Ulmer was recognized for her surface water testing project with the high schoolers, she led the middle school to receive the a 2017 Star of Innovation award for the groundwater testing project, and in 2019-2020 she was named Perham Teacher of the Year.
The awards aren’t why she teaches, she said, but she knows teaching has been a “perfect fit" for her.
“She understands kids, she knows how kids learn differently...and she’s learning herself as a teacher all the time, which is a good way to model in front of the kids,” Bjerke said. “She doesn’t stop learning, and that’s what she wants her kids to do, is never stop learning.”