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From fundraising to carpentry

Aspen Ridge students build trail network

Aspen Ridge Middle School seventh-graders show off their snowshoes they can use on a new trail network they built by the school. Local businesses and individuals contributed to the project, which involved the students learning a myriad of skills. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Corcoran)

By CHRISTIE MASTRIC

Journal Staff Writer

ISHPEMING — A project that encompassed skills such as fundraising and graphic design, as well as a lot of carpentry, has enhanced the outdoor experience near Aspen Ridge Middle School.

Kurt Corcoran, a teacher at the school, said that three years ago, the seventh-grade Explorations class embarked on a mission to create a large network of single-track trails throughout the 90-acre campus that’s part of NICE Community Schools.

“What started off as a pipe dream, has slowly developed into a reality,” Corcoran said in an email. “We now have over 3 miles of trail that has been single-handedly built by hand by seventh-grade students at Aspen Ridge School.”

The students, he said, have handled everything from grant writing, fundraising, designing logos and public speaking in front of local boards to using power tools, grooming snowshoe trails and “everything else in between.”

Corcoran said project goals include: building a trail that would benefit students’ health and minimize time spent on electronics; maintaining the trail year-round, including snow grooming; increasing outdoor activity among students and community residents; holding at-home cross-country meets; giving the community a COVID-safe, socially distanced, year-round outdoor activity; and breaking down the barriers of the traditional classroom walls – while getting outside.

What started off as an eight-student class has exploded into over 40 students with two teachers, Corcoran said.

It also has attracted the attention of local businesses.

For example, Corcoran said Eagle Mine recently donated $1,000 for the class to purchase Redfeather snowshoes from LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

“We now have a pair of snowshoes for every student in the class,” he said.

Donations have been received from Eagle Mine, Jackson’s Do It Best Hardware, Ace Hardware, West End Health Foundation, Kiwanis Club of Ishpeming, Moyle Trucking & Excavating, Range Area Mountain Bike Association, Signs Unlimited, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, Superior Watershed Partnership, Bell Forest Products Inc., and numerous personal donations from the community.

“This class would not be possible without the help of our neighbors,” Corcoran said.

The lack of textbooks apparently was not a problem for at least one young participant.

“What I like best about our class is that we’re outside almost every day,” student Mason Hietikko was quoted as saying.

Now in ninth grade, Hietikko took part in the project during its first year, said Corcoran, who called him “one of the pioneers.”

“We don’t have textbooks yet we’re doing everything from writing grants to building bog walks,” Hietikko said. “It’s given me an opportunity to learn things we never would have dreamed of in a typical classroom.”

Corcoran said the students learned carpentry skills through experience.

“I have a saying in my classroom that goes ‘Just.Figure.It.Out.’ Big tech corporations aren’t necessarily requiring college degrees anymore. Instead, they want young people who can problem-solve,” Corcoran said. “Of course, they receive guidance from me, but I’m a firm believer in learning by doing.

“We, often times, give kids too much adult guidance these days. They need to know they’re capable of much more than they’re sometimes aware. We just have to give them the opportunity.”

Students are learning real world skills as well, he noted. 

“Our project sometimes changes daily,” Corcoran said. “Sometimes we realize our ideas weren’t ideal and we have to start over from scratch. We don’t have a final chapter that we’re trying to reach by the end of the year. The students treat this class like a job. They’re given a daily task and sent on their way.”

Sometimes the task takes 15 minutes and sometimes it takes five class periods, depending on the nature of the task, he said.

“Most importantly, the kids really feel vested in this project,” Corcoran said. “They’ve got their — sometimes — blood, sweat and tears into this and want to see the benefits of their trail in the future.” 

Corcoran said the next big goal is to pull off a lantern lit snowshoe fundraiser this winter for the community to enjoy. Students will ask local businesses to sponsor a lantern and ask families for small registration donations. The tentative date for the event is Feb. 6, with social distancing guidelines in effect. 

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500 ext. 250. Her email is cbleck@miningjournal.net.

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