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Learning About STEM Through BMX

By Debra Shapiro

Posted on 2019-06-28

Fourth graders at Liberty Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, build a scale BMX track as part of the USA BMX Foundation’s Track Modeling Program. Photo courtesy of Sandra Havelka

Teaching students science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by connecting it with bicycle motocross (BMX), closed-course bike racing over natural or simulated rough terrain, is possible with programs from the American Bicycle Association’s USA BMX philanthropic arm, the USA BMX Foundation, located in Gilbert, Arizona. Marianne Landrith, gifted education teacher for the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona, says she discovered the foundation’s educational programs in 2017 when a student was working on “an inquiry project on helmet safety in extreme sports. We had to find resources for Daniel!”

Landrith contacted Mike Duvarney, executive director of the USA BMX Foundation. Through the foundation’s Motivational Speaking program, Duvarney arranged for Olympic BMX racer Donny Robinson to visit Daniel’s school. “Olympians can come to schools anywhere in the country [at no charge]. They talk about how much STEM is involved in the field and the tools used. Each Olympian talks about failure and staying motivated through the lens of cycling,” Duvarney relates.

“We received lots of great information for Daniel,” Landrith recalls. “Donny rode a bike into the classroom, talked about goals and perseverance, and [answered students’ questions]. [The foundation] gave Daniel a BMX bike. [The school has] 92% [of its students receiving] free or reduced-price lunch, so it was very generous of them to do this.”

With funding from the district’s Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program grant, which Landrith coordinates, she was able to bring another USA BMX Foundation STEM program, the Track Modeling Program, to Tucson schools. “We started with classes with a high number of gifted students in them, and the program expanded from there [to include all students],” she explains.

Schools that don’t have grant funding can receive help from USA BMX Foundation in finding funding sources, and may be matched with sponsors, Duvarney points out.

Designed for fourth graders, the weeklong/25-hour Track Modeling Program supports the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and gives students an opportunity to conceptualize, design, and build a scale BMX track. “Students talk to a track builder and learn about which track features go well together [and] the engineering behind them. They are able to Skype with an Olympian. Then [students visit a local track] for themselves…They [get to] ride [bikes] on the track,” says Duvarney. Back at their schools, they design their own tracks and work in groups to incorporate their individual designs “into one final track design,” he adds.

“We spend an hour with teachers to help them teach it, an hour-long phone conversation,” Duvarney reports. “All supplies [for the program], including dirt, are delivered to the school. It’s truly a kit.”

“Students are creating something from nothing, engaging their creativity,” Landrith asserts. “They learn how to apply the information they heard [at the track] to their new creation. They gather information from their own experience riding on the track several times, which helps them make the track the right size.” Making tracks to scale “is challenging because fourth graders haven’t been exposed to ratios and scale,” she adds.

“They work in teams and learn to collaborate, how to have good discussions and compromise, how to divide tasks evenly. They get to play in dirt and be messy, which can bring science to life. And [Track Modeling] gets them outside and exercising. So many of our students have never ridden a bike, so they learn how to ride one,” Landrith relates. The physical education teachers, she adds, “get the students on bikes three weeks before the trip and make sure the students are comfortable and know how [to use the hand brake].”

“People think of BMX as flips and tricks, but there are two types of BMX: freestyle (flips and tricks) and racing. We are BMX racing. We take safety very seriously and ensure that all precautions are followed. Students must wear a helmet, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants, along with closed-toe shoes,” Duvarney explains.

Craycroft Elementary School in Tucson is in its second year of using the Track Modeling Program. Principal Jim Ridge says the program’s “project-based, inquiry approach” supports “gifted students’ strengths and supports all of our students [as well]…Our students took agency and created their tracks based on their learning and the resources [provided]. This was an engineering project [that taught students about concepts like] soil compaction, ratios, and elements of design that could be produced on a real track…Students learn about how water is important in track design; in the new Arizona standards, water is a big content piece.”

Ridge adds, “None of the teachers are experts in track design and BMX, but the program doesn’t require it…We had access to experts from the field: riders, engineers, and designers whose support helped move the project forward.”

Cheryl Lane and Alison Scranton, fourth-grade teachers at Michael G. Wickman Elementary School in Chino Hills, California, taught the Track Modeling program with three of their fourth-grade colleagues. “The engineering project was clearly outlined and easy to follow. It was great! Alison was the only one who had experience with the BMX sport, but we all were able to do the project,” asserts Lane.

“The only tweak [we made was] timing. The program was designed for one week; we spaced the activities out over a two-week time period. That worked perfectly,” Scranton observes.

“We are in the beginning stages of NGSS implementation, but this gave us an opportunity to dive into the three dimensions of NGSS. We were able to design [lessons] through project-based learning and connect related curriculum. Track Modeling helped us design effective curriculum,” say Lane and Scranton.

The program also increased students’ environmental awareness. According to Lane and Scranton, students had to consider “where to build a track and the environmental impact. Is there enough space? How can we bring in natural elements? What is the impact of animals on a new track?”

“Students have to think about how to use recycled, reusable items in the track design,” Ridge notes. “One award the judges present [when judging track designs] is for the greenest track.”

“When students go to the track, they see the impacts of weather [on it, such as] erosion,” says Duvarney. “So much maintenance is needed to keep these tracks in tip-top condition. Students learn it’s all about safety and maintenance to preserve what you have built.”

Students were assessed, says Scranton, “with the use of science journals. The kids kept record of all the stages of the project using the 5E lesson plan. The final track build was also used to assess overall understanding.”

Learn more about USA BMX Foundation’s youth education programs at

USA BMX Foundation’s STEM Program

The USA BMX Foundation also offers a STEM Program in which students in grades 3–5 (and in grades 6–8 in an expanded version) “assemble bikes and do [STEM-related] experiments with them, such as calculating speed and trying out different tires,” Duvarney explains. “Teachers get an instructor’s manual, and no prior knowledge is needed. Our STEM Program is unique because it can fit with physical education, summer camps, and out-of-school time.”

The program supports NGSS, and the instructor manual includes “pre- and post-tests that help teachers see what students learned,” he adds.

Landrith brought the STEM Program to fifth graders at a Tucson middle school. “Students are on bikes every day, and work in groups; they do experiments with bikes, gathering data on [things like] the effects of tire pressure on bicycle efficiency; seat position and its effects on the force on the pedal; how tire tread affects a bike on different terrains; how speed affects balance; and how much stopping distance is needed on sloped versus flat terrain,” she relates. “Back in the classroom, they analyze the data and reach a conclusion…[The program] matches many standards beautifully.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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