Webster High School student Ana Zermeno set out to finish what she and her classmates started at Reed Park three months ago.
Zermeno and seven other Webster freshmen spent their spring break developing ideas for improving their community park as part of the first pilot for Tulsa Public Schools’ new City Lab program. When offered a chance to participate in the second pilot this summer, she didn’t hesitate to respond.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” Zermeno said. “I was really happy to be able to come back out here and keep it going.”
This time around, 18 rising sophomores from Webster and Hale high schools worked to implement and expand on some of those ideas. The result was the design of a mural representing unity and the creation of hundreds of STEM kits. Both pilots centered around Reed Park, which is located near Webster at 4233 S. Yukon Ave.
The students presented their work to community stakeholders and city parks officials Friday.
City Lab provides an outlet for high-schoolers to identify and solve real-world problems in a way that empowers them and their community to work together, said Emily Hutton, the district’s director of community engagement. The program takes place during extended school breaks to help keep kids engaged outside of school.
The projects are meant to foster their critical-thinking skills in a way that can’t be achieved in a classroom setting.
“We want to get their brains active in a very different way,” Hutton said, “so they’re able to continuously use the knowledge that they’ve learned but in an active setting.”
For the past two weeks, the students met with city officials and toured sites like Gathering Place and the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks to learn how hands-on designs affect user experience. They analyzed the proposals from the first pilot and, with help from a local artist, created a large mural that eventually will be copied onto the park’s soon-to-be-renovated tennis courts.
The mural features silhouettes of the students and is made up of various shades of blue to represent the school colors of Webster and Nathan Hale. The overall design is supposed to illustrate a sense of community and inclusiveness. Throughout the mural are smaller images that depict scenes ranging from Route 66 to a family standing strong during a thunderstorm.
A lot of the initial group’s proposals involved reinventing the rarely used tennis courts at Reed Park to make them more appealing. They wanted to bring back the basketball hoops that used to be connected to the courts but were removed several years ago.
City park officials liked the idea and approved a remodeling project to be implemented in the near future. The new design will have one tennis court and one basketball court.
Nathan Hale student Champagne Suttles said the mural will help with the plan to up the appeal factor.
“What they wanted to do was make a way to attract more kids and people,” Suttles said. “And so we thought, what better way to do that than with a mural that can show all of Tulsa?”
The summer group also produced more than 500 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) kits filled with materials to make things like hoop gliders and miniature towers.
The STEM kits will be available for kids at Reed, and officials expect to share them with other parks, too.
Giving up two weeks of summer break to take part in City Lab didn’t seem to bother Suttles, who appreciated the opportunity to make a difference in the community.
The sophomore hasn’t felt a strong connection to Tulsa. She moved away when she was little and only recently returned. A lot changed during her absence.
This experience, she said, helped to build that connection.
“Knowing that I can help to bring Tulsans together and make the city better just by doing what I’ve done here, it’s really good for me,” Suttles said.
TPS will roll out the full-scale City Lab program at several high schools in the fall, Hutton said.
Students will meet in five-, 10- and 20-day sessions to tackle projects that may involve collaboration among the schools.
“As we’ve seen with the summer pilot, there’s something to learn from people outside of your own network,” Hutton said. “We definitely want to take a look at bringing different schools together to provide that learning opportunity.”
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