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Friday, Feb. 28, 2014

Big, bad wolves teach Bentwood students a lesson in science and safety

Special to The Star

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Once upon a time, a first-grade teacher wanted her students to know science was exciting. So, she huffed and she puffed and she threatened to blow their houses down.

Well, actually, Nancy Smith got parents to do the dirty work as the “big bad wolf” at Bentwood Elementary in Olathe during National Engineers Week.

A $500 grant from the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers is helping Smith create a hands-on approach to science, including the idea that not all scientists work with test tubes.

“I think that first graders can do a lot more with science than most people give them credit for. It’s fun. It’s exciting. There are lots of different areas that you can go into,” Smith said.

Enter a lesson on the Three Little Pigs, anchored by Steven Guarnaccia’s retelling of the classic story, which gives a nod to the architectural challenge faced by the pink brothers. Add recycled cardboard and plastics, a lesson on material choice, and engineering planning, and you have the setting for Mom and Dad to play the dreaded wolf.

When the big day came, 17 first graders waited with bated breath on their chinny-chin-chins as their parents tried to blow down their carefully planned and constructed houses. The projects had to withstand human lung power, hair dryers decorated to look like wolves, an electric fan and a wolf-costumed leaf blower. When none of those worked, the kids were reminded that tornado season is right around the corner by the appearance of an industrial drier.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of the buildings survived. And the students learned not only about force and motion and the importance of a good foundation, but also how engineering planning is a different kind of scientific method.

“Engineering means that you build stuff and repair stuff,” explained Megan Hessler.

Megan’s house was one of the ones that toppled, but she took the lesson in stride. “I learned that even if it falls down you can still repair it and it kind of gets to be the same,” she said.

Classmate Caden Tweed was already familiar with improvising in his building projects. “My brother always likes to follow the instructions, but me, I just build,” Caden said. His “J.J. Pig Air Force Base” house used a Lego box as the main support. Good idea. It held its ground through all the wind forces, even the “tornado.” Caden said he doesn’t know any engineers in real life … except his dad.

Parental participation was part of this project from the beginning. Todd Black, a civil engineer, and father to another one of Smith’s students, suggested the grant to Smith. He also helped with the lesson on foundations by working with the kids to mix concrete bases for their house projects.

Black, who is a board member of the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, said National Engineers Week is about promoting the profession and developing the next crop of engineers. “We want to promote the field, but we also want to have kids growing up excited about engineering,” Black said.

The lesson also helped kids understand how ongoing construction at the school would help keep a real big bad wolf at bay. A new office and entrance to the building are nearly complete, part of an Olathe School District bond issue focusing on making the schools entrance points safer. Principal Cathy McDonald brought blueprints for the real construction project to class to show the kids how building plans turn into reality. “It’s creative for the kids. The kids get engrossed in the curriculum, and our district supports it. It’s an awesome adventure,” McDonald said.

The grant funds four other projects. Students will put together marshmallow launchers, build smaller house projects and host a career fair. They will also team up with the Kansas City, Kan., Community College building tech program to construct bird houses.

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