Local Schools

Topeka area teachers ‘ignite a fiery passion’ for science

Caesar Hernandez, an eighth grader at Topeka’s Holy Family School, tries on the firefighting helmet of Chuck Thompson. In addition to being employed as the school’s physical education instructor, Thompson has served as a volunteer firefighter at Topeka’s Mission Township Fire Station for the past 20 years. For the past several years, he has taught fire safety and the science behind fighting fires as part of an elective he designed for sixth through eighth grade students. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JULIE ANDERSON

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.

Caesar Hernandez tries on the firefighting gear of Chuck Thompson. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JULIE ANDERSON

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.

Holy Family students are eager to learn about fire safety. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JULIE ANDERSON

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.

Chuck Thompson shows students his firefighter jacket. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JULIE ANDERSON

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.

Students in the fire safety class at Most Pure Heart of Mary School, pose for a photo with Benny, an accelerant detection canine. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARC ANDERSON

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.

Father Nathan Haverland smiles down at Benny, an accelerant detection canine. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARC ANDERSON

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.”

About the author

Marc & Julie Anderson

Freelancers Marc and Julie Anderson are long-time contributors to the Leaven. Married in 1996, for several years the high school sweethearts edited The Crown, the former newspaper of Christ the King Parish in Topeka which Julie has attended since its founding in 1977. In 2000, the Leaven offered the couple their first assignment. Since then, the Andersons’ work has also been featured in a variety of other Catholic and prolife media outlets. The couple has received numerous journalism awards from the Knights of Columbus, National Right to Life and the Catholic Press Association including three for their work on “Think It’s Not Happening Near You? Think Again,” a piece about human trafficking. A lifelong Catholic, Julie graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School and Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. Marc was received into the Catholic Church in 1993 at St. Paul Parish – Newman Center at Wichita State University. The two hold degrees from Washburn University in Topeka. Their only son, William James, was stillborn in 1997.

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