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Bright Beacons of Learning

Student-Made Lighthouses Continue Long Tradition

Learning about lighthouses can be pretty great. Even better when you can visit one. And way, way better when you build one yourself.

For some two decades, it’s been a rite of passage for Alto Elementary fourth-graders to construct scale-model lighthouses as a way to wrap up a months-long unit combining geography, science, social studies and art with pure Michigan history.

Kiah Burgess’ big brother made one last year and it’s still displayed proudly in his bedroom, she said. “I thought it was amazing.”

Logen Steffen can explain exactly how his lighthouse beacon works

“Students have complete ownership of this project, which in turn improves their overall attitude about learning,” said teacher Jennifer Bolhuis, one of three teachers leading the lighthouse construction project this year. “This is a highly engaging project that will hopefully increase long-term retention of their newly found knowledge, not only in science but also in the geography of Michigan.”

Checking Out the Real Thing

Near the beginning of the school year, fourth-graders start learning about U.S. geography, including physical and human characteristics like sand dunes, lakes and lighthouses. Next comes a field trip to Ludington State Park to study dunes up close, and a climb to the top of Big Sable Point Lighthouse to look out over Lake Michigan.

In the meantime, students learn about energy in science class by investigating how to complete a circuit and make a bulb light up. Next, they build their own circuit, which becomes the beacon for their scale-model lighthouses.

Kiah Burgess with her lighthouse

The lighthouse field trip and supplies to construct the scale models come from the Alto PTO.

“This is a warning lighthouse,” explained Kiah. Her tower, which she christened “The Flower Shore,” was decorated to resemble fieldstone, and stood to wave boats from getting too close to the rocky bottom along shore.

Hannah Flickinger’s lighthouse grounds included a rock-lined bonfire with tissue-paper flames, and pink tissue wildflowers scattered here and there.

“I found that wrapping the paper around the milk carton (for the keeper’s house) was quite hard,” Hannah admitted, “but most of it was just plain fun.”


Michigan Lighthouses

Third-graders go on a lighthouse tour of the fourth-graders’ work
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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