Virginia high-school class builds toys for needy

A young teacher spends $300 out of his own pocket to pull off the hands-on learning project.

Paul Steiner's construction technology class at Forest Park High School in Dale City, Va., does not pretend that its assembly-line project can solve foreign import crises. But when his students decided to manufacture wooden toy trucks – about 1,000 to donate to the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots Foundation – they knew their products carried a trump card over the recalled toys from China.

No lead paint was used. Just mineral oil for the finishing.

Last week, Steiner brought 1,000 student-made trucks to the Fredericksburg, Va., warehouse of Toys for Tots, which plans to donate them to economically disadvantaged children in the area, he said.

The project, which lined up about 100 construction students from five classes around his room at machine stations, is one of those unusual school enterprises that combines community philanthropy and classroom problem solving. It is also an example of how one teacher can get so passionate about a project that he is willing to spend his own money to help see it through.

"So, we may read a chapter on the Industrial Revolution, but how about we have our own industrial revolution?" said Steiner, who is in his twenties. "Instead of giving them 50 minutes of lecture, I give them five minutes of lecture and then we get up and do it. This teaches them how manufacturing actually takes place. Students don't conceptualize that products are actually made on an assembly line."

Steiner, who conducted similar projects in his previous job at Freedom High School in Woodbridge, Va., dismissed the notion that having students work on an assembly line is a redundant exercise. He said the project, which included 60 engineering students who helped with planning, required them to incorporate lessons from math and social sciences and involved complicated problem solving.

"It's not just students drilling holes and passing parts along. Students would get parts and something wouldn't be right. They had to pay attention," he said. "Students have to make a choice: What happens when the stock we have is not the right size, or when the assembly line gets too slow? How do we fix it?"

Steiner was inspired after reading about the toy shortage triggered by the recall of products made in China that contained lead paint. He got all five of his classes to participate in what turned out to be a two-week process. Several machines were stationed along the walls, and students were assigned to spots.

The trucks were a hit at his high school, he said. Teachers and staff members wanted any extras. Steiner, who spent $300 out of his pocket for the truck wheels, gave some finished trucks to those who donated scrap wood or an old tool.

"I have a secret stash," he said.

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