Shrugging off the kind of heat that could fry an egg on the sidewalk, the non-stop students from Holy Rosary High worked in perfect unison on the afternoon of May 23, hauling long planks of wood from their school bus to an electric saw for a series of precision cuts.
Other students, wielding measuring tapes, marked the exact spots at which the wood would be joined for the day’s construction goal – completing the handrail for a ramp. Yet another team of students swooped in with power tools to screw the wooden puzzle together.
The students – all sophomores in the geometry class of Holy Rosary High math teacher Murphy Whitman – were marking the end of the school year with a very special service project: the wholesale design and construction of a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the Kenner home of an elderly woman.
Math in action
Assembled on site over the course of two class periods, the ramp was a tangible reminder to the teens that the geometry skills they had learned in the classroom – from angles to the Pythagorean theorem – truly could be used in “the real world.”
“I’ve never really made blueprints for something and then seen it (built). It’s really cool,” said sophomore Micayla Price, who created the winning ramp design with her classmate David Catalano after Whitman put forth the ramp challenge in March.
Whitman divided his class into design teams, gave students class time to come up with sketches and encouraged them to mull over their designs at home. Participation in the challenge was compulsory.
“Our design was simple, and everyone else had a difficult ramp,” said Catalano, speculating on why his and Price’s design was chosen for construction. Other than going to the Internet to get an idea of various types of ramps, the team worked with simple pencils, paper and rulers.
“It’s an accomplishment,” said Catalano, who because of the project is suddenly entertaining the idea of pursuing a career in architecture. “In class, Mr. Whitman gives us baskets and different-shaped containers, and we’ll have to figure out the volume. But (the ramp) was the first 3-D project that we’ve done all year.”
Safer access to home
Sophomore Christopher Buwe said the construction phase of the project fostered teamwork among students at the uptown high school, located on Jena Street at Napoleon Avenue.
“We’ve been able to work together a lot better because of it,” Buwe said. “We’ve gotten some friendships out of it because we got to chat during the work.”
Buwe was particularly excited to see the homeowner’s former ramp – a rusted sheet of iron that was haphazardly supported by bricks – out of the picture. The metal ramp posed a hazard not only to the physically challenged woman, who uses a walker, but for anyone entering the home, especially when slickened by rain.
“It had no rails on it to keep her from falling. We’re replacing it with a stable wooden ramp with rails attached,” Buwe said. “It’s nice to be able to do it by hand instead of just saying, ‘OK, we’re done with the design, we’ll let someone else build it.’ Most of the time (teachers) just ask us to do things on paper, and not actually bring it to life.”
Problems puzzled out by the ramp-building students included whether to keep or demolish an existing concrete landing off the door (in the end they decided to keep it), and how to work around subterranean concrete that once anchored an extended porch.
“It was too tough to break it up with a sledgehammer, and we didn’t have a jackhammer, so we had to reposition the ramp posts,” Buwe said, noting that Louisiana’s shifting topography also figured into their design.
A sinking feeling
“In some areas of Kenner sometimes the ground can sink, so we were trying to figure out how could we could put in the ramp and not have to keep re-cementing it (into the ground) every time the ground shifted,” Buwe said. To solve this quandary, the students decided to set the posts without cement, so future handymen could easily reposition them as needed.
“The posts are dug into the ground about two feet deep,” Buwe said. “This way (the ramp) should be stable if a strong wind comes or if it floods. It should be stable enough to stay in one spot.”
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.