First Lady Rosalynn Carter and President Jimmy Carter sit at a picnic table in front of PCES students who built it as part of the Trailblazer Program. “Trailblazer is a STEM-based program with a particular emphasis on math reading,” said Scott Sauls, PCES principal. “The idea is that we are giving kids an opportunity to do things at this early age they otherwise would not be able to do

By Lena Hensley
The Eatonton Messenger
March 14, 2019

Putnam County Elementary School students have a practical way of learning math and science through hands-on experiences that let them not only to explore various career paths but also allowed them to meet former US President Jimmy Carter.

“Trailblazer is a STEMbased program with a particular emphasis on math reading,” said Scott Sauls, PCES principal. “The idea is that we are giving kids an opportunity to do things at this early age they otherwise would not be able to do.”

The program includes 32 kids, 16 fourth-graders and 16 fifth-graders. They are selected by school administration based on the idea of who would benefit the most.

The project started three years ago as an experimental program to help academically struggling kids who did not show much interest in math, science and social studies. “They want to give kids who don’t have a clue of what they are going to do the ideas so they would get caught up with the rest of the school,” said Gregory Brickell, one of the project instructors. “This is a career path to give these kids an idea what they want to do.”

Antavious Larson and Gavin Butler attach a leg to its table top.

The project includes field trips to the career college, hair salons and lumber mills. “They learn all about different careers, and they can start thinking (of the future) now instead of thinking of just school,” said Brickell. “We’ll get them on as many field trips as possible to expose them to the world. Some have never been out of Eatonton. We take them to see what’s out there.”

“The work that they’ve done, preparation, the amount of dedication they put in the program is really the reason for its success,” said Sauls. “We recently built some tables with our Trailblazer program and delivered them to the President Jimmy Carter in Plains.”

He explained that the students made eight tables. Five of them went to Jimmy Carter’s museum. Two to his church, and one went to his private lake house. “But the kids built them,” he said. “I’ve never been so close to the president my whole life,” he continued. “And they, at their age, [have already met] a former president of the United States.”

“Since the picnic tables are for the public, we want to make sure they are right,” said Brickell. “I tell (kids) the measurement, and they do cutting.” He explained that they were too young to use electric tools, so everything was done by hand.

Zachary Smith, Faith Monts Evans, and Alberto Hernandez build one of the picnic table tops.

“Mr. Brickell does a lot of the planning, preparation and work involved in these hands-on activities,” said

Sauls. “Along with Callie Davis and Dana Rogers, he supplies the math reading side of it for the kids.” Sauls also mentioned that Brickell came up with a project curriculum. “He created a curriculum that will afford the opportunity to have lifelong experiences and possibly go on and do this kind of work because of the experience they got in elementary school,” he said.

Answering a question about how he came up with ideas for the project, Brickell, a Social Studies teacher with 29 years of teaching experience, said, “I did a lot of cooperative learning, and very few teachers did at the time. And I loved it.” He explained that a principal in Newton County where he worked before asked him to teach technology. “I had credentials to do that, so I agreed,” said Brickell. “Then I came to Putnam County and brought it with me.”

While supplies for the first tables were funded through the grant, Mike House, mill manager for Interfor – one of the world’s largest lumber suppliers – provided lumber for additional tables. He stated that Interfor was completely supportive of the community and desired to support the school in this endeavor, agreeing to donate any wood material to the school. The students have built four additional tables that were placed in the lobby and are used by all PCES students.

“What we are possibly looking at is building some benches that may encircle our trees, like an octagon around the trees, to serve as park benches on the playground,” said Sauls. “I’ve challenged Mr. Brickell and his kids to see if they would like to build those.”

“They do it all. I just go around and make sure they build it right,” said Brickell. Picnic tables are not the only activity the children accomplished in the projects. They also do a lot of individual projects that help them learn math and science through hands-on experiences. One science experiment was pouring water into the cracks of the rock and freezing it, making it crack and teaching them about erosion. Example of individual projects include building bridges out of toothpicks. “We put weights between the tables to see who made the strongest bridge,” said Brickell.

Brittney Thompson, Emanuel Lorenzo and Mariangeles Sanchez attaching legs to a picnic table.

Another example is crashing cars with eggs inside. “They are crashed eight times, and the eggs have to remain intact,” said Brickell. In real life, the same principle is used to test the safety of passengers inside the vehicle. One student came up with an idea to use a toilet paper spring as a shock absorber. Brickell keeps the best designs to demonstrate creativity of his students.

There are rockets, doll houses, decorative pots out of recycled paper, candy dispenser where Skittles will come out only after a coin is placed in a special drawer and even rockets that can actually fly and are tested outside.

“Children come up with their own designs. I propose what they are doing and give them a basic outline. They all get the same materials, but they have to use their own brain to decide how to do it,” said Brickell.

Jamya Harper, Leroy James and Samantha James build picnic table benches

“I like (the project) a lot because I could build something for the president,” said fifth-grader Enrike Garcia. “I learned how to make the tables and how to use the tape measure.”

“I like it because we get to do fun things while we build,” said Damian Little. “(Mr. Brickell) always teaches us what to do first. We work on cars, rockets, candy dispensers. My favorite thing was the rocket.”

“I like being in this class because we got to build stuff and we got to do fun experiments with Mr. Brickell,” said Samantha James. “It is a real fun program to be in. STEM is my favorite activity in it. Where we get to build stuff, like crashing cars. I made one of them.”

Sewing and cooking are other skills the children learn in the project. Brickell explained that they sewed cornhole bags. “I like sewing,” said Samantha James. “We have a picture how to make them, and we use sewing machines.”

“I like cooking,” said Leroy James. “It’s fun, but you also have to be careful cooking. We made cupcakes. I learned that. I can make them at home.”