Garden Hills fifth-graders get hands-on STEM lesson with skating rigs
The News-Gazette. Lyndsay Jones. February 14, 2019.

CHAMPAIGN — The two fifth-grade girls agreed: The project they had been assigned Wednesday at Garden Hills Elementary was "better than class."

Like the rest of the building's fifth-graders, they had swapped the classroom for the lunchroom about 1:30 p.m. and were bent over tables, studying blueprints and piecing together PVC pipes.

Their assignment?

Start building an "apparatus" that all students, especially kindergartners, could use as a support when P.E. classes start roller-skating units next month.

It was a project that could easily have been passed off to district operations and maintenance workers — and it almost was.

"This is the crazy thing," said David Lund, director of facilities for the Champaign school district. "Ms. (Melissa) Kearns came to me and said, 'Mr. Lund, you know what? I want to do a skating device that will help students not fall when they're learning how to skate.' That's really where it started from."

Never before tasked with such a project, Lund turned to Google, where he found an image on Skateland Savoy's website that looked like what Kearns, the school's magnet coordinator, wanted.

"I was like, 'OK, that's all PVC, I know my guys can build something,'" he said.

And they did — "10 or 15" times, he said, before coming up with a product that would actually function the way it needed to. They could have made them all, Lund said, but he and Kearns discussed turning their problem into a project for the school's students.

Their building, after all, had been designated by the district last year as a magnet school that emphasizes math, engineering and leadership, so having the fifth-graders build the devices for younger students seemed fitting.

"You talk about real-world application — the kids are doing it," he said. "That's critical, because the mission of schools is, 'Can they see something out of this?'"

Lund had brought two of his operations and maintenance team members with him. The students didn't know it, but at least one of them — Jamie Gatson — was also a Unit 4 graduate. He had started in the district as a custodian before climbing higher.

Ever-conscious of her role in promoting STEM and STEM-related careers to the students, Kearns said inviting the two maintenance employees was purposeful.

"Getting into O&M doesn't always mean you're a janitor or you're cleaning up a school," she said. "So we're extending them an invitation to work with our kids. It gives them (the kids) a different lens."

The two were almost like impromptu teacher's assistants Wednesday: While teachers circled around the gym, the workers helped students use sandpaper and solve the problem of fitting different pieces of pipe together. Heat had caused some of the piping to expand and not quite fit into the corresponding parts — Lund told the kids it wasn't "like putting Legos together," which was audible in some students' yelling.

"When they asked us to first do this, we didn't expect it," Gatson said. "The coolest part was showing them another way. You ain't gotta play basketball, be a doctor, lawyer — if you want to be an engineer or a designer, you can. That's been one of the coolest things."

The projects were far from finished Wednesday afternoon: There was still gluing left to do, some pipe left to sand and wheels that needed to be attached before they'd be finished. They were set to come back again today to try it again, which wasn't a problem to fifth-grader Charlene Smith.

"I like doing stuff like this because it's better than class all the time," she said.

A self-described "educator first," Lund hopes the students take away something a little more in addition.

"I don't know if they conceptualized that they could be standing here in 10, 20 years," he said. "And who's to say these (projects) won't be around in five, 10 or 20 years, and P.E. teachers are going to say 'Oh, where did these come from? When did we build these?'

"Turns out, it was a student-led process."

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