by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Approximately 100 pounds.
That’s how much a firefighter’s protective gear weighs.
And that’s just one lesson a group of sixth through eighth grade students at Topeka’s Holy Family School learned earlier this school year when Chuck Thompson, the school’s physical education teacher, brought in his own gear.
For 20 years, Thompson has served as a volunteer firefighter at Topeka’s Mission Township Fire Station, but teaching grade school students about fire safety and the science behind fires was not something he planned to do. At least, initially, that is.
Eight years ago, another teacher suggested he design an elective on health and safety. That got him thinking.
During the elective’s first year, Thompson focused mostly on basic first aid for bumps, bruises, minor cuts and scrapes, broken bones and other injuries children sometimes experience during recess or PE class.
“[The curriculum] keeps evolving as the years go by. I just keep adding to it,” he said.
Although he has always included components of safety and first aid, Thompson said it was during the course’s second year that he shifted gears to talk about firefighting.
Besides extinguishing fires, Thompson said he’s shared with the students “the different types of things that throughout the day a firefighter might be called to do,” such as responding to car accident scenes, rescuing someone trapped in a building and performing CPR. For that, he brings two mannequins.
Although he’s not a certified instructor and cannot provide certification, because of the length of his tenure with the fire service, Thompson can “teach them everything they need to know.” Then, if students enroll in courses offered through organizations such as the Red Cross, they can more easily pass the course and obtain certification.
Besides, he said, it can save a life.
“It’s a skill I feel people need to know how to do or least try to do until help gets there,” he said.
Caesar Hernandez, an eighth grader, said he found the CPR component helpful. Additionally, he has learned about 9/11 as well as a lot about a day in the life of a firefighter. He even got to try on Thompson’s protective gear.
“It was heavy,” he said with a laugh.
While Hernandez and other students have been learning from Thompson, seventh and eighth graders at Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Topeka are learning about forensic science in an elective taught by Britta Pischer, one of the school’s seventh grade teachers.
“I knew I wanted to teach a forensics elective simply because forensics is really applicable to everyday jobs the 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 being that they’re in seventh and eighth grade, it’s the time now to show them how science and careers go together.”
The elective is new this school year, but is generating a lot of buzz.
Intended to be a yearlong class, 50 of 80 eligible students signed up for it. So, she split the course into semesters so more students could take it.
Like Thompson, Pischer is developing the curriculum on her own, “trying to figure out what the kids are interested in learning” and teaming up with a friend, Wally Roberts, chief of investigations for the office of the state fire marshal.
One lesson focused on diagramming crime scenes. After the lesson, Roberts visited the class to show how he would have mapped it, following it up with a demonstration of a 360-degree camera scan of a room.
In another lesson, Roberts partnered with Rusty Vollentine, an investigator with the Topeka Fire Department, and students learned about the state’s five accelerant detection canines.
As part of a hands-on learning experience — and without telling the students or Vollentine — students placed a few drops of gasoline on the shoe of Father Nathan Haverland, the parish’s pastor.
Afterward Benny, the accelerant detection canine Vollentine brought to the class, located the scent.
“We didn’t know what [the liquid] was at the time,” seventh grader Blakely Teske said, “and the dog walked across the room right up to Father Nathan’s shoe.”
“It took like 10 seconds,” he added. “It was really cool.”