The sixth annual Gentry Middle School Derby is an example of a race within a race. On the surface, there is the excitement of children sending their pine wood cars hurtling down the track in motorless mayhem which goes to the fastest creation. The other race is a team of educators using a battery of applied concepts from across the curriculum to give students real-world knowledge for the race of their futures. Ask any Gentry teacher and they will tell you the bottom line is it’s fun and that’s why the seventh-graders remember it all.
“We were looking at Issac Newton,” said Gentry teacher Melissa Whitfield. “They immediately connected the concepts (force and motion) there and couldn’t wait to try them on their cars. Today has been wheels, weights and axles day, so it has been hectic.”
Seventh-grade science teacher Jamie Mosley again won a $700 grant to fund the integrated unit with the goal of giving the students an enjoyable hands-on activity. The challenge is students must design, build and test their own derby race cars. According to Mosley, students sell sponsorships for their cars with the goal of using all proceeds to help send a child to the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
Mosley said the grant program is through Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation’s Bright Idea Grant program. Several teachers indicated the Rev Up Your Learning unit has had seventh-graders at Gentry excited since they watched the derby last year.
“This grant is so important to us to fund this activity,” said Mosley. “The cost is anywhere from $12 to $15 a car to furnish the pit crews with supplies they need. You can see it (the fun they’re having) in their (students) faces. I cannot stress enough that this is a team effort. What makes this unit a success is the seventh-grade teachers are awesome.”
Teacher Wendie Gwynn explained how some car trails in science class were followed by students in math class learning how to collect and analyze data to further improve their cars.
“Using mathematics helps them determine how their cars will do on derby day,” said Gwynn. “They can go back to science class ready to apply what they have learned from statistics, rations and other math concepts to the cars. If I tried to just give them data, this would go nowhere. Their ownership of the car is so strong they can’t wait to tweak and apply it.”
Language arts also is brought into play for the unit, as teacher Becky Martin readily affirms.
“We reinforce them in language arts by getting them to learn technical vocabulary for the concepts they are applying,” said Martin. “We choose readings that tie into the topic. For instance, we worked on letter writing skills so they could use this in their letters asking for sponsors.”
Those members of the education team assembled for the interview said they had not anticipated how the derby changed to express students’ compassion by supporting the Victory Junction Gang Camp in recent years. They said the children themselves set a goal of raising $5,000. Gwynn, always the math teacher, said after two weeks the students are 23 percent of the way to that goal. She said the project is always interested in additional sponsors and donations.
“The unit has turned out to be more of a service project as it is an education opportunity with several character traits evidenced in our students,” said Martin. “They have shown remarkable kindness, compassion, cooperation, competitiveness, teamwork and good sportsmanship.”
Teacher Melissa Whitfield said Boy Scouts of America Scoutmasters Dave Whitfield, David Haymore, Marty Johnson and Jeff Mosley also helped with guidance on how to time and organize the derby as well as improvements to the track so it met official rules. Scout volunteers also help with the annual derby. Lowe’s Hardware of Mount Airy also was credited with contributing time and materials to help make the derby possible.
“We tie in this activity with the Boy Scouts Pinewood Derby and businesses from the community are invited to help,” said Whitfield. “On the very first day of school as a seventh-grader, they’re asking us about the derby. It’s that popular. The Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership logo is on every car because of their support.”
The group gives a collective pat on the back for fellow teacher Greg Nelson, who uses the school’s bandsaw to translate student designs for car bodies into reality as they turn a block of wood, four wheels and two axles into a racing car. Nelson grins when he describes how the teachers field a unique car for the Rodeo and Safari teams.
“We break all the rules they have to follow,” said Nelson. “Usually our secret entry is theme based and not seen by the kids until it is on the track. They love it. I don’t know what it was about the cars this year, I’ve broken three blades cutting them out.”
Nelson said the ability and willingness of the group of teachers to cooperate at a very high level and know what each is doing is crucial to the derby’s success. Martin said each teacher has been willing to “give and take” with scheduling so the students can have fun as they learn.
“Our administration here at school has also been supportive,” added Gwynn. “It’s not easy helping us with scheduling so we can all work together with a unit like this.”
The derby appears to be a fusion of fun, teamwork, hands-on and the derby also contains Common Core elements as well as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
“The students have deadlines to meet and this enhances responsibility,” concluded Whitfield. “In the end, it all goes back to a team thing.”
Reach David Broyles at email@example.com or 719-1952.