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Teen Club’s Service Project Creates New Ball Pit for Park

Over the past couple of months, YSS’s Teen Club in Collins-Maxwell has partnered with Iowa State University’s Engineering Ambassadors Network on a service project.

The project? Building a gaga ball pit in Collins Park.

Gaga ball pits are becoming playground must-haves around the country. The large pit has a low, octagonal border to contain the gaga ball game, which is similar to dodgeball.

The idea to build a gaga ball pit originated from an ISU–YSS connection. Mindy Heggen, program manager for the ISU Engineering Ambassadors Network, knew about YSS because her children had attended YSS Kids Club—YSS’s before/afterschool program for elementary kids. When she discovered YSS had a similar afterschool program for middle school students called Teen Club, she knew there was an opportunity for collaboration.

“Teen Club is a program where kids can find a group to call their own,” says Kalli Kennel, YSS’s Program Coordinator for Teen Club. “Oftentimes these kids are not in sports or other clubs after school. We work on social and emotional skills, friendship building, and how to be advocates for each other.”

Another component of Teen Club is service. The youth are required to complete 20 hours of volunteer work through community projects. “Our projects, which are hands-on, are awesome because the kids get a lot of leadership from it,” Kalli explains. “They run the projects, and I am just there to keep them safe.”

So when Mindy reached out to Kalli on behalf of the ISU Engineering Ambassador Network, it seemed like the perfect match. The Engineering Ambassadors Network brings together ISU engineering students to teach youth in grades K-12 about critical thinking skills and guide engineering projects.

“We focus on the engineering design process. We talk about how engineers get started and make the final product,” says Sam Guido, an ISU student in the Engineering Ambassadors Network. “We introduce this at a young age, so kids can start those critical thinking steps early on. It gives them free range of where they want the project to go.”

The YSS teens took ownership of the project from the start. Setting a budget, buying materials from the store, and learning to be patient with the weather taught them valuable lessons.

Nova, a sixth grader in Teen Club, said, “My favorite part about the whole project was that we helped do it. Drilling was my favorite because I’ve never done that before! I just loved how it all turned out.”

“I was able to learn the engineering process through building the gaga pit, and I now have a broader understanding of what engineering is,” says Gabe, a ninth grader who aged out of Teen Club but remains active as a volunteer. “It might help me choose a future career in engineering.”

On April 12, the gaga ball pit was officially opened to the public, with youth from Teen Club and ISU students from the Engineering Ambassadors Network there to celebrate the project and be the first to play in the pit. The project was made possible thanks to funding from Raytheon Technologies, the ISU students’ mentorship, and the teens’ hard work.

Gabe and Nova were proud of the work they accomplished in the past two months. Sam is thankful for the time she spent with Teen Club, and she says every ISU ambassador has grown a special relationship with the kids.

“When they think back on this project, I hope the kids remember they were able to do this on their own and remind themselves that they are able to accomplish anything,” Sam says. “I think that’s the goal with these projects: showing that anyone can be an engineer, anyone can be in STEM, anyone can make something happen when they put their mind to it. That’s what we try to teach them.”

The ISU Engineering Ambassador Network and Teen Club are hoping to collaborate more in the future and create additional service projects.

“We’ve got to start getting creative,” says Mindy. “There are people with great ideas who don’t ever get exposed to engineering or the process to create solutions. I hope the teens got the idea that they can be an engineer. Even if they never thought about it, they can.”

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