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A different education for Rowland Hall students

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SALT LAKE CITY — Before Wednesday morning Hannah Nichols had only been told one thing about the day's activity: it has something to do with gravity.

"I think it's fun, it's a good way to learn without using paper and pens," Nichols said. "I've done it once, our team has done it at least three or four times."

Nichols, and every tenth-grader at Salt Lake's Rowland Hall, spent their Wednesday learning about gravity by building soapbox-like gravity cars as part of the school's Beyond the Classroom program.

"We're trying to do something special, something unique," Rowland Hall Upper School principal Lee Thomsen said. "Something that makes Rowland Hall different from opportunities you can get at other schools — and I think we've succeeded."

Rowland Hall is a private pre-kindergarten through twelfth-grade school with 1,000 students stretching over two campuses in Salt Lake City. While the school's tenth-graders were constructing gravity cars the eleventh- and twelfth-graders spent the day learning how to write resumes and participate in job interviews.

"For the tenth grade it is a one-day-only event, so this is gravity car day," Thomsen said. "The juniors … they attach themselves to a service organization, and they do 25 hours of service. The seniors do a two-week job shadow in May."

Teachers told students Wednesday's activity would be about gravity, but little else.

"The sophomores showed up today at 8:15, all they knew was the topic was gravity," Thomsen said. "And we heard all sorts of things beforehand like, 'are you going to be dropping apples on our heads, what are you going to do, how are we going to do gravity?'"

Rowland Hall developed the Beyond the Classroom program in its entirety, even custom designing and making the kits for the "gravity cars."

Students were split into groups of four and given the car kit and instructions to work together. Each individual car design was up to the group, and it showed.

"We wanted to design and we wanted to make it more aerodynamic too," sophomore Chris Fedor said. "Then finally our chem teacher came over and was like 'hey, you guys are the daredevils, why don't you come over and change it up.'"

What Fedor and his group — Abi Hill, Jess Sterrett and Zach Pollatsek — came up with was a skeleton-like face-first gravity car.

"And because we were the daredevils we went with it," Hill said.

Sterrett explained the benefits of designing the headfirst gravity car.

"You feel safe because you are so low to the ground, if you had to get out of it you could just roll out."

Other cars featured ropes to steer. All required measurements and calculations to get the cars built.

"I think that opportunities like this give students with a very different set of strengths the opportunity to shine," Thomsen said. "As you walk around you see very different kids leading than you might see in any given day in a classroom, which is really cool."

Nichols takes the bus from Park City every day and has been going to Rowland Hall since she was in fourth grade.

"We had heard about this school and decided to try it out and I liked it," Nichols said.

Harry Aaronson also takes the school bus from Park City every day and has been going to Rowland Hall for two-and-a-half years.

"We just thought that I needed a different form of education. Smaller classrooms and a higher level of academic rigor," Aaronson said. "The classes are definitely difficult and challenging but they're enjoyable and rewarding."

Aaronson said he and his parents were looking for a different kind of learning environment and building and racing gravity cars definitely qualifies.

"It's was a lot of fun to do some hands-on building stuff and it was definitely a nice break from school to do something like this was really cool," he said. "And then actually get to drive them too."

Twitter: @FinleyJY