NWA School Brings Wheels to the Classroom

By Hannah Bahn

The recreational cycling scene in Arkansas has grown considerably in recent years. Thanks to local advocacy efforts and generous funding, miles of biking trails and cycling parks have been built. These great resources provide ample opportunities for young people in our state to explore their communities on bike. Too often, however, bicycling is relegated to a recreational activity. Thaden School’s Wheels program offers an innovative alternative: bring cycling into the classroom.

Thaden School, a new independent school in Bentonville, opened its doors in August 2017 with approximately 45 students in grades seven and nine. The young school will grow incrementally over the next few years to serve students in grades sixth through twelve thanks, in part, to its innovative Signature Programs. In addition to offering traditional courses like math and English, all Thaden students enroll in the school’s signature Wheels, Reels, and Meals courses, which connect the school to the region and encourage students to combine multiple elds of study while engaging with the community in ways that foster civic and global responsibility.

All three signature programs grew from Founding Head of School Clayton Marsh’s intensive exploration of the region in his rst six months on the job. “From the beginning, Thaden has lived in my imagination as a school that will build upon the history, character and strengths of Northwest Arkansas. It was impossible not to notice the Razorback Greenway, the extensive networks of mountain biking trails and the strong culture of cycling,” says Marsh.

Thaden School’s Wheels program takes advantage of the region’s extensive network of bike paths and trails and connects cycling to the school’s academic curriculum. Students use the motion and design of a bicycle to explore questions in math and physics. For example, math students in seventh grade recently tried to determine how far a bike will travel after one revolution of the pedals. With the help of math teacher Hallie Balcomb, cycle education specialist Michael Crum and the resources in the school’s bike lab, students used a combination of quantitative reasoning and real-life trial-and-error to explore how a variety of factors such as the terrain, the weight of the rider, and the size and aerodynamics of the bike would in uence their answer.

Visual arts students were challenged on the rst day of class to draw a bike from memory, requiring them to consider design, style and the functional structure of a bike. Using their sketchbooks and later watercolors, the students drew and painted bicycles and their parts. This project challenged them to understand the physics that go into making a bike “bikeable,” while also creating space for students to cultivate their own artistic vision and voice.

In addition to connecting cycling to more traditional academic coursework, the school fosters students’ cycling knowledge and capabilities. Students have opportunities to gain technical skills while building and repairing bikes under the guidance of local experts in the school’s innovative cycle lab. They learn about cycling and safety.

Moreover, the school partners with local bicyling organizations. For example, Thaden students have partnered with Bike NWA on local bicycling advocacy projects, and they have learned from Progressive Trail Design about how to design bike trails.

Finally, and most importantly, the students have ample opportunities to ride! Students ride during Wheels class, after school on the NICA team and will soon enjoy a bike course on their very own campus.

In the words of the Thaden School’s cycle education specialist, the goal of the Thaden bike curriculum is to “connect some of the ideas and concepts the students are learning in other classes to an object nearly all kids are familiar with: the bicycle. Through the bicycle, we can learn about health and wellness, physics, math and geometry, as well as city infrastructure and its effects on citizens.”

The school’s programs offer an innovative and advanced vision for what biking can look like in our schools.