Every Tuesday, which I call “Trainday”, Dr. Bob Grassi who is a retired school psychologist visits with me and we talk about model railroading. Both of us are Lionel O gauge enthusiasts, which is one of the popular model railroading scales. Dr. Grassi enjoys building small town layouts that include plastic model buildings, scale vehicles and various electronic accessories such as crossing gates and rotating beacon lights. I on the other hand, am more of a collector of model railroading Arizona mining ore cars.
During a recent classroom visit, Dr. Grassi informed me that several years ago he had built a portable layout that was three feet wide by eight feet in length and that he had donated to our district the complete layout with locomotive, rolling stock and operating cars, which came from his personal collection. Dr. Grassi assembled the layout at one of our district’s schools, but it was never used and it has been gathering dust for the past several years. He stated that he had built the layout with intentions that someone would put on train shows for the students.
Just thinking out loud I said, “I would enjoy having a train layout in my room. I could integrate the train layout into my lesson plans.” Without hesitating Dr. Grassi said, “If you want it, let’s go talk to your administrator to make arrangements to bring the layout into your classroom.” Both Dr. Grassi and I contacted my administrator and I explained how I wanted to integrate the train layout into my reading, math, and science lessons and after hearing our plan my administrator agreed to let us move the layout into my classroom. Walking quickly from the office to “my train depot” I pulled a measuring tape from my desk and took a few measurements around the room and found that it would fit nicely in the back of the classroom. After receiving permission, Dr. Grassi and I disassembled the layout and brought it back to my room. Dr. Grassi asked if I needed help in assembling the layout and I responded saying that I would have the students reassemble the layout.
By allowing the students to rebuild the train layout, they have taken ownership of their learning. For example, students will ask me to create math lessons that will integrate the layout. In one lesson I modeled how to find the area of two different shapes using the oval shape of the railroad. Then I asked students to create math lessons they could share with the rest of the class. Here are other examples of how I have integrated my lessons using the train layout.
First, I grabbed their attention by assembling the portable track layout and I displayed for the students the various buildings that needed to be assembled and I let them see various electrical accessories that needed to be wired to the layout’s electrical circuit.
Next, I had students work in groups and choose a building that they wanted to assemble. Before starting to build, they had to read and follow informational text directions to complete their buildings. Students also learned about ratios and added proper scale automobiles and figurines to the layout.
Two students expressed interest in wiring the accessories, future electrical engineers, and before the students began working on the electrical circuit, I instructed them on how electricians tag out power supplies and how to use a multi-meter to check for an energized or dead electrical circuit, which models real world scenarios. After the students determined that it was safe to work on the electrical system, they wired accessories to the electrical circuit, which included a rotating beacon light, two crossing gates, and a Wiley Coyote Shack, that when an electrical button is pushed, Wiley comes out of the shack and attempts to capture the road runner. Students also learned to repair electrical wiring malfunctions.
Currently, I am using the layout to teach a science unit that includes magnets and electricity. Students are taught how electricity runs through a transformer, which powers the track and then the locomotive picks up its electrical source through a third rail. In addition, students observe how an electrical magnet engages and spins a helicopter’s rotor, which makes the helicopter fly away from a platform that is mounted on a flatcar.
In the education world, we are constantly trying to keep “on track” to make sure our students are ready for high stakes testing. However, we can make the trip pleasant by using our creativity to make learning enjoyable for our students who are still kids. After all, we are all kids at heart.