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‘Chem-gineering’ unit encourages creativity

Community-based projects produce soap, plastic yarn

Forest Hills — Hadley Urrutia took up crocheting when the stay-at-home order was enacted in the spring to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Eventually she expanded her crafting to plarn — aka plastic yarn. 

By way of online tutorial videos, the Northern High School Project Next student learned to crochet using strips of plastic bags such as those from grocery stores. So far she has made a small purse and a small area rug for a makerspace class, and currently is working on a larger tote.

Given that “I hate what (discarded plastic bags) do to the environment,” Hadley said she’s pretty stoked to repurpose them into items that will be used more than one time. Her first purse took about 30 bags, she said.

When hybrid learning resumed in the fall and industrial arts teacher Eric Baird learned what Hadley had been up to, he thought Project NEXT sophomores might want to look into plarn creations as part of an upcoming “chem-gineering” unit. 

Junior Hadley Urritia works on a plarn purse she is crocheting (courtesy)

He invited Hadley, who is a full-time virtual student this year, to speak to her peers.

Now other students have finished or are working on plarn items such as coasters, Easter egg bags and dish scrubbers. Sophomores Alec Jansen and Nate Sullivan used a loom to create a wearable suit.

Since early December, sophomore Jada Vyn has been using a loom she made from dowels and an old pallet board to create what she plans to be a 6-foot-by-3-foot sleeping mat. 

She’d like to be connected with a local agency that works with those experiencing homelessness, and possibly donate the durable, easily washable item to someone who could use one.

“I’m not sure of the quantity I’m using, but I’d say (it’s) in the thousands,” said Jada, who usually works on the mat in her bedroom or the family living room. When she spoke for this article, she said she had already logged nearly 12 hours into the project. By the time the mat is complete, she said, she will have more than met the required 40 hours that includes research, prototyping and labor.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to just be able to sit down and work on something, and I like this idea of giving back.”

Chem-gineering

The plarn project is one of two that Project NEXT students could choose as part of the current “chem-gineering” unit. Fifteen sophomores and juniors chose plarn; 35 sophomores are making soap.

Over the course of the unit, students will not only learn about the science of what they’re doing — regarding plarn, how petroleum is harvested, refined and made into plastics — but about the business and economics side of things: keeping time logs, tracking expenses, determining costs versus labor, marketing and product packaging. Teachers often bring in local business professionals to present to and even work with students. 

Jada said she’s now more aware of the physical and chemical properties of plastics. “It’s pretty interesting to see how the different plastics are transformed.”

It’s no surprise to hear that level of engagement from a Project NEXT student. Project NEXT is a project-based learning program that began officially in 2018. Students in the program identify real-world problems and propose solutions.

Said Jada: “I understand the material better doing hands-on projects, and the projects we do, we connect more with our community. I don’t think the opportunities we get would happen in a traditional learning setting.”

As a result, she’s noticed that she and her fellow NEXT students put more time into presentations they make to their peers, school staff and those in the community. “We actually want to make sure we understand and feel comfortable with what we’ve learned, so by the time we present we feel very prepared.”

Sophomore Jada Vyn constructed a loom on which to create plarn mats (courtesy)

Independent Learning 

Baird said Project NEXT students are given a lot of freedom to explore — and to learn from failures as much as successes. That was especially true when Northern High students had to learn from home again temporarily before winter break when the school closed due to increased quarantining.

“I know it can be scary (for teachers) to give a kid the freedom to go and find something (when) you don’t know how it’s going to end,” he said. “I think that’s part of the draw to what (Project NEXT) students are doing. They’re independent; we provide the scaffolding, the access to resources.

“Completely opportunity and a push: With all my students that’s pretty much how I think they should learn,” he added. In fact, Baird said, “The vast majority of the feedback I get from students and parents is that they need to spend less time on their projects because they get so engrossed in them.

“The learning is so real to them and it’s so relevant, they are engrossed and time flies by. It is the exact thing we wanted in Project NEXT.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and 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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