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Topeka-area teachers “ignite a burning passion” for science

by Marc and Julie Anderson[email protected]

TOPEKA — Around £100.

That’s how much a firefighter’s protective gear weighs.

And that’s just one lesson a group of sixth through eighth graders at Holy Family School in Topeka learned earlier this school year when Chuck Thompson, the school’s PE teacher, brought his equipment.

For 20 years, Thompson served as a volunteer firefighter at Topeka’s Mission Township Fire Station, but teaching elementary school students about fire safety and the science behind wildfires wasn’t something he intended to do. At least, initially, that is.

Eight years ago, another teacher suggested that he design a health and safety elective. This got him thinking.

During his first year of election, Thompson focused primarily on basic first aid for bumps, bruises, minor cuts and scrapes, broken bones, and other injuries kids sometimes get during recess or PE class.

“[The curriculum] continues to evolve over the years. I keep adding to it,” she said.

While she’s always included safety and first aid components, Thompson said it was in her sophomore year of the course that she shifted gears to talk about firefighting.

In addition to putting out fires, Thompson said he shared with students “the different kinds of things a firefighter might be called to do during the day,” like responding to car crash scenes, rescuing someone trapped in a building and perform CPR. For this, she brings two mannequins.

While he is not a certified instructor and cannot provide certification, due to the length of his tenure with the firefighters, Thompson can “teach them everything they need to know.” So, if students enroll in courses offered through organizations like the Red Cross, they can more easily pass the course and become certified.

Plus, he said, it can save a life.

“It’s a skill that I feel people need to know how to do or at least try to do until help arrives,” she said.

Caesar Hernandez, an eighth grader, said he found the CPR component helpful. Plus, he learned a lot about 9/11 and a day in the life of a firefighter. He also got to try on Thompson’s protective gear.

“It was heavy,” she said with a laugh.

While Hernandez and other students have been learning from Thompson, seventh and eighth graders at Topeka’s Most Pure Heart of Mary School are learning about forensic science in an elective class taught by Britta Pischer, one of the school’s seventh grade teachers .

“I knew I wanted to teach an elective in forensics simply because forensics is really applicable to everyday jobs that kids are more or less aware of,” she said. “But what they may not be aware of is how science plays into some of these jobs. And since they’re in second through eighth grade, it’s about time we showed them how science and careers go hand-in-hand.”

The elective is new this school year, but it’s causing quite a stir.

Intended to be a one-year course, 50 of 80 eligible students enrolled. Then, he divided the course into semesters so that more students could take it.

Like Thompson, Pischer is developing the curriculum on her own, “figuring out what kids are interested in learning” and collaborating with a friend, Wally Roberts, chief of investigations for the fire marshal’s office.

One lesson focused on creating diagrams of crime scenes. After class, Roberts visited the class to show how she would map it, followed by a demonstration of a 360-degree scan of a room.

In another lesson, Roberts teamed up with Rusty Vollentine, a Topeka Fire Department investigator, and students learned of the state’s five accelerant detection canines.

As part of a hands-on learning experience – and without telling the students or Vollentine – the students put a few drops of petrol on the shoe of Father Nathan Haverland, the parish pastor.

Later Benny, the accelerant detection dog Vollentine brought to class, spotted the smell.

“We didn’t know what [the liquid] it was at that moment,” said seventh grader Blakely Teske, “and the dog ran across the room to Father Nathan’s shoe.”

“It took about 10 seconds,” he added. “It was really good.”

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