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STEM students build for good

Construct wheelchair ramp for community resident suddenly in need

Grandville — Middle-school STEM teacher Bruce Marvel began his second-hour class with a standing ovation.

“This is from me to you,” he told the eighth-graders while giving them a round of applause. “Let me tell you, you did a really good job. You made a difference.” 

Marvel’s first- and second-hour STEM students spent January building a wheelchair ramp for the house of one of their schoolmates. The middle school student’s older sister was paralyzed in a shooting in Grand Rapids over the summer, and the home’s front steps made getting in and out using a wheelchair nearly impossible. 

Justin Russell takes care to secure the flooring on the ramp (courtesy)

Since the family couldn’t afford to have a ramp installed, Marvel and his students gladly stepped in to help, making the ramp their class “build project” for the trimester. The job, which they began after completing all necessary tool safety tests, involved everything from taking correct measurements to learning how to use impact drivers and other power tools. They also had to learn to write and follow complex instructions, as the first- and second-hour classes handed off the project to each other mid-task every day. 

Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic meant the students couldn’t be on site to help install the ramp. So Marvel and some other construction-minded teachers did the installation last week, making sure to document everything in order to share it with the young builders. The process took only an hour, thanks to their precise measurements and sturdy construction. 

“That thing set right where it had to, and everything just fit really nice, so great job there,” Marvel told his students as he scrolled through photos of the installation. “Mr. Batdorff and I jumped on it a lot to see if it would move, and it never did. And if it doesn’t move when we jump on stuff, then it’s pretty solid.

“I can’t tell you how much the family thanked you for what you did,” he continued. “But I’ll just say, there were tears. The young lady who’s in the wheelchair, she had to have people get her down those steps before the ramp went in. So now she’s able to get out of the house. They can get her to her doctors’ appointments. They are just so grateful. You made it so much easier for them in so many ways.”

Middle school teachers Darin Batdorff and Bruce Marvel install the wheelchair ramp at the house of a Grandville family (courtesy)

Not Too Young to Help

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is a newer class at Grandville Middle School, but it’s made an impact in a short time. Marvel spent 23 years as a math teacher at the school before pitching the program to his principal and the district. 

“I could see that kids wanted hands-on projects, and I felt it was time to bring some of that back,” he said. “I want the kids to have opportunities to help others, while doing what they like to do. They like to build, and I am a firm believer that we have to start letting kids do things. They’re constantly told, ‘You’re too young, you’re too little.’ But if they don’t get opportunities, when are they gonna learn?” 

Each trimester, Marvel welcomes a new, eager group of students to the shop classroom behind the middle school. They spend two weeks learning how to ID tools, learning safety procedures and taking important safety tests, which each student must pass at 100% before being allowed to use power tools. Some class projects include designing and cutting a refrigerator magnet, which gives them practice using a bandsaw, and constructing wooden dragster cars, powered by CO2 cylinders, to race. 

The build project differs from class to class — and this is where Marvel shows his students the importance of using their skills to help others. In the past, students have built picnic tables for the city of Grandville, sheds for storage at the school and installed decking over an older community member’s front stoop to protect from ice, among other things. Some of his other classes this trimester are building raised garden beds. 

Next trimester, a new group of students will take on the challenge of building conestoga huts, partially enclosed shelters that will be used to help people experiencing homelessness in Grandville. 

“I put a note in the district newsletter about what we do, and that might have been a mistake because I got overwhelmed,” said Marvel. “Right now, we’re booked until spring of next year with projects.

“But that’s like what I tell the kids, once you volunteer once, you will never be for want of volunteer opportunities. So keep your eyes and ears open for where you can help, because now you have the skills. And we always need people that are willing to work.” 

The finished ramp will make entering and exiting the house in a wheelchair much easier (courtesy)

Contributing to the Real World

One of Marvel’s mantras is “Do the best you can and take pride in what you’re doing.” Eighth-grader Colin Heyboer took that to heart when working on the wheelchair ramp. 

“It was sad to hear about the incident and what happened to that family, but I think it was cool that us students could do something to help them and make life a little bit easier for them,” Colin said. “I hope it gives them, like, a nice homey feeling again.” 

For his part, Colin helped to build the side railing and some parts of the ramp’s flooring. It was his first time using a bandsaw and drill, and he enjoyed measuring the lengths of the wooden boards to fit into spots where they were needed.

STEM is his favorite class, Colin said, and that’s because Marvel teaches them not only school skills, but also life skills. 

“I think it would be fun to do something like (helping build a ramp) again,” said Colin. “I never really considered that earlier, but after building the ramp, it kind of made me a little more interested” in volunteer work. “It showed me how we can contribute to the real world, and how we can use these skills in our actual life.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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