By Guy Still

Betsy Stretch is a self-proclaimed bike geek, and proud of it. So, when the MN Department of Education began implementing engineering science standards for middle school students, she used bicycles as a teaching tool in her classes at Marcy Open. Now Stretch is a Curriculum Integrationist for Minneapolis Public Schools and the bicycle unit she developed is being taught in classrooms around the district.

The four-week STEM curriculum is tailored towards sixth grade students and breaks down bikes into subsystems, including the frame, drivetrain and braking systems. This helps teach students not only about the physics of how the machines work, but also demystifies the mechanics of the bicycle, which can be daunting for adults and kids alike.

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The program culminates with a volunteer day, where bicycles and bike experts come into the classroom and give the students hands-on experience with the subsystems they’ve been studying.

Minnesota companies Target and (bicycle parts distributor) QBP not only supply the volunteers, but also stock each participating classroom with basic maintenance supplies, including tubes and a pump.

Corbin Rice has taught the bicycle unit for three years in his classroom at Northeast Middle School and really enjoys it, as do his students.

“They get very excited when the volunteers come in since they are new faces and get to meet interesting bike experts.” Rice believes community involvement, including volunteer day, is an important component to learning, and keeps kids engaged in the material.

At Andersen United Community School teacher Margaret McCreary also utilizes the curriculum. Approximately 80% of students in her classes are English Language Learners, many of whom have limited vocabularies. As such, she has had to tailor the curriculum, but notes that all students can connect and relate to the mechanics of a bicycle.

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(credit: Margaret McCreary)

(credit: Margaret McCreary)

This year the volunteer day in her classroom followed a nearly one foot snowfall, so a number of students stayed home. But those that showed up had a great time getting up close and personal with the components they had been studying.

Students are also encouraged to use their inventiveness to brainstorm ways to improve bicycles, and some have come up with some very creative ideas. Those ideas have included using kinetic energy to melt snow on the roads, innovative lighting systems and unique ways to transport pets while pedaling.

(credit: Margaret McCreary)

(credit: Margaret McCreary)

This year 10 teachers are using the bicycle STEM unit. Stretch hopes to increase that number every year, with the ultimate goal of giving every sixth grader in the district the opportunity to engage in the curriculum.

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QBP, which uses the mantra “every butt on a bike,” has been involved in the program for three years, as part of its Advocacy Community & Environment (ACE) program. ACE Director Seth Nesselhuf explains “this is one of the most satisfying efforts we have as a company in the volunteer realm and I do believe this is a fantastic way to encourage the passion of biking for kids while delving into physics and the sciences.” Beyond that, he hopes that the program encourages kids to get out and ride, and perhaps develop some future bicycle mechanics.