Second-graders from Peach Plains Elementary tour Beacon Recycling in Muskegon. Courtesy Grand Haven Area Public Schools
Leaders on the lakeshore say first grade is not too young to learn career skills.
Grand Haven Area Public Schools (GHAPS), in partnership with the Chamber of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, this month launched a program called Homegrown in which nine classrooms of students first grade and up will be paired with five local businesses to solve challenges using design thinking and project-based learning.
Grand Haven-based Automatic Spring Products Corp., GHSP and Klever Innovations; Muskegon-based Beacon Recycling; and Zeeland-based Herman Miller — which has a plant in Spring Lake — have signed on as Homegrown’s inaugural manufacturing partners.
Brendan Bolhuis, vice president of Beacon Recycling, said he became excited about project-based learning and design-thinking methods when his daughter, then in second grade, participated in the Imagination Station playground redesign the Business Journal reported on in January.
Children from Grand Haven elementary schools used the methods gleaned from the district’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) electives to brainstorm how to make a wooden play structure in Grand Haven safer and more accessible to those with disabilities. Construction is set to begin on the rebuild this month.
That effort occurred before the Homegrown program was created, but it planted a seed.
Beth Bolhuis, Brendan Bolhuis’ wife, is a second-grade teacher at Peach Plains Elementary and is leading the first class participating in the Homegrown project. Beacon Recycling was paired with her students for the project.
The students visited Beacon Recycling on Oct. 3 for a tour so they could get to know the company and start thinking about their driving question, “How can we redesign a safer and more efficient entrance?” After additional site visits and classroom time, the class will present its solution to parents, teachers and Beacon team members Oct. 18.
“The best part of this is the authenticity,” Beth Bolhuis said. “The students are solving a real, authentic problem and taking ownership of the solutions. They’re also highly engaged in the creative sequence and get to experience a sense of pride.”
The “creative sequence” involves six stages: observation, investigation, incubation, solutions, decisions and validation. The sequence isn’t new to the students — they’ve been practicing it in their STEM classrooms.
Brendan Bolhuis said he sees Homegrown as an enriching pathway for students.
“If I was in second grade, and someone told me, ‘OK, go home and study for a math test, spelling test or writing test, or, you can do a hands-on project, I would choose the project. I think that’s a more effective way to learn, at least for some kids.”
He said his company previously has hosted tours for school groups, but this is its first experience with an immersive effort that has the potential to greatly benefit Beacon.
“Selfishly, as a business (leader), I want to expose these kids to a manufacturing environment, as well as show them what happens here,” Brendan Bolhuis said. “Not everyone will be an attorney or doctor, and there are great jobs available in this industry. We want to make sure there isn’t a negative stigma to manufacturing.”
He added: “I hope some of these kids end up running my company someday.”
Nancy Manglos, director of talent and leadership development at the chamber and liaison between northwest Ottawa County manufacturers and GHAPS for this program, said the participating companies were selected in May and the partners began a discovery process at that time.
“We scheduled a half-day event at Peach Plains, where the companies spent a half-day learning about what design thinking was in the STEM classrooms,” she said. “Both partners need to understand each other’s environments.”
The next week, the teachers were selected and toured all five companies and then were paired with businesses on one project apiece. After taking the summer off, the groups met again in September to determine the driving question, or problem, the business needed to solve.
Each classroom will take three weeks, on varying time schedules depending on the business’s needs, to produce a solution.
Manglos said although the chamber has facilitated and participated in many programs connecting middle and high school students to the business community, the organization recognizes the manufacturing industry is changing and more needs to be done to develop young talent.
“Our job is to strengthen our economy and help our businesses grow,” Manglos said. “We feel it’s important to create opportunities for those different sectors to work together. Because of the talent shortage, we feel this is an important role to prepare that future talent. It’s really important to start that awareness early.”
Andrew Ingall, GHAPS superintendent, said in addition to fostering understanding in children about manufacturing, the district also wants parents to learn about the industry.
“It’s not dark, dirty and dangerous like people think,” Ingall said. “It’s high tech and clean with nice-paying jobs. Not only do we need to start giving the students exposure to that, we need to give the parents exposure.”
He said teaching these concepts early in elementary school can yield surprising results.
“You’d be amazed at the kind of solutions 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds can come up with,” he said. “We think this elementary age is really important. It sets the stage and gives them a base, so when they are entering middle school and high school, they have a whole Rolodex of experiences — things I’ve seen and heard and love: the machinery, the furniture, the way the product lines work and operate.”
Ingall said he also sees it as a way to fulfill the district’s responsibility to be transparent with taxpayers.
“The partnership with businesses gives us the chance to open doors to them and show them how (we) are teaching and learning. We can have a dialogue about what kind of skills they see as beneficial for the future workforce,” he said. “And, the business partners provide a lot of tax dollars to our district. They make up a big chunk of our tax base and are a big user of the outcomes. They need workers. We believe in great schools and a great business community.”