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The minds behind the designs

Third-graders study innovators in depth

Kentwood — Discovery Elementary School third-grader Mason Shane is still impressed with James Dyson’s vacuum cleaners after studying for months how the inventor spent 15 years designing them.  

“I liked that he created canisters, because every time I saw my mom or dad pull the vacuum out I wondered who created such a canister,” Mason said. “He created the dual-cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. I call it dual-cyclone for short.”

Third-grader Mason Shane, portraying innovator James Dyson, explains how the Dyson vacuum cleaner works

Mason recently used a toy Dyson model to demonstrate the innovative vacuum on the floor of the school’s media center. He was dressed as Dyson, in a black suit and tie, and introduced himself by sharing a narrative and facts about Dyson’s life in front of a poster including all the details.

Dyson was one of many famous inventors to make an appearance at Discovery and Explorer elementary schools. Showing their brainy inventions were Leonardo Da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Marie Curie, Walt Disney, Garrett Morgan, Lonnie Johson, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and several others.

Students in PEAKS, a comprehensive third-through-eighth-grade gifted and talented program, spent the second semester learning about innovators in depth before portraying them at the culminating showcase. 

Third-grader Aila Hall learned a lot about inventor Nikola Tesla. With a mustache glued to her mask, she talked about how he created the alternating current induction motor, which Elon Musk uses in his Tesla cars. While his inventions are fascinating to many, Aila found another fact very interesting:

“He fell in love with a white pigeon,” she said.

Building Knowledge Over Time

Students completed the first year of a long-term project, which spans third-through-fifth grade years in elementary PEAKS.

Each third-grader chooses one person who has an innovation or invention to research, said Discovery teacher Amanda Tollas. They wrote research papers in the third person and a first-person speech for presenting.

Third-grader Adiyan Mahmutovic portrays the late Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc.

Next year, as fourth-graders, they will learn about innovations and their progressions –how trains have evolved over the centuries, for example. In fifth grade, they will become innovators themselves and design their own products. 

Academic rigor increases and students build on what they have learned each year, Tollas and Explorer third-grade teacher Debi Hayes explained.

“It really benefited them to focus on one person and dive into learning very interesting facts,” Tollas said, noting that many innovators faced adversity and were non-traditional learners. 

Also, PEAKS students use design thinking in many of their projects, which teaches them to design, tweak and improve with the end user in mind. 

Hayes said students noticed famous inventors had used similar methods. 

“There’s a spark with understanding that their innovator might have thought through their own process,” she said.

In most years, students present projects to parents at the culminating showcase event. Students and teachers had to be innovative themselves to make things work this year, because parents are not allowed in the building due to COVID restrictions. Students were recorded to create a virtual presentation for parents.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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