The problem starts with a desert island.
Second-graders from Anniston’s Randolph Park Elementary are stranded after a shipwreck. They’ve got to build boats to get off the island and make it back to the shores of civilization, but it’s not that easy: They only have aluminum foil to work with, and other stranded folks will crowd the boats when they launch. The goal isn’t just setting sail, but carrying as many people on each boat as possible.
It might sound high-stakes, but the extra castaways are played by rolls of Sweet Tarts, and the desert island is just an experiment station in the school’s gymnasium, one stop in the school’s “Learning is Sweet” hands-on teaching day. Every second-grader in the school participated Tuesday morning, learning about math, science and language in candy-themed experiments and activities.
“I think one boat had 50 ‘passengers,’” said Kimberly Thomas, one of the school’s second-grade teachers who planned the event, along with teachers Ocie Lewis and Michele Griffin.
Each station was built to let students apply their classroom lessons in a real-world way; one station let them build cars out of candy boxes to learn about simple machines, and another taught them about gasses by pouring a variety of sodas on Nerds candy.
“Sometimes the classroom gets mundane,” Thomas said, “so today we were able to let the kids get into it for themselves.”
Thomas said she personally raised about $500 for the event through friends and family, and another $500 came from donorschoose.org, according to Randolph Park Principal Teresia Hall. The website crowdsources funding for school projects, similarly to GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Thomas said it took about a month to go from creating the request on the website to holding the event.
Students also learned how to read for authorial intent, and to look for persuasive, informative and entertaining angles in stories. Thomas used pie pans to represent those angles with an acronym, PIE, that the kids latched onto.
Members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at Jacksonville State University, of which Lewisis a member, volunteered at the event. Grad student and fraternity member Tre Mitchell said the kids get excited when fraternity members visit, which makes the work rewarding.
“It’s about service and guiding the youth, and giving them what we wish we had when we were their age,” Mitchell said.
As kids went through the experiment stations and their worksheets, they were given points they could redeem at a “candy shop,” a table covered in a variety of sweets. That part was saved for the end so the kids could take the candy home. They also got shirts that pronounced them “sweet learners” and “candy collectors” — valuable credentials for any elementary school-age kid.
Thomas said she plans to hold another learning day in the spring centered on chemical reactions, states of matter and machines. She said that the kids told her throughout the day that what they’d learned in class started to make sense, and she wants to continue giving that to the children.
“It makes sense when you actually do it, and everyone has to be engaged,” she said.