Super Powers: Students combine reading, riding to generate electricity

Many things take away from kids developing a lifelong pattern of fitness and exercise, says Adam Boesel.

"There's all of these people saying kids need more outside time, and they need more movement time. The problem with that is that you have the other side that says they need more academic time."

And the academic time people usually win.

Not so at Avoca Elementary School in Avoca, about 15 miles northwest of Port Huron, where Boesel collaborated with the Community Foundation of St. Clair County and school leadership to install his Green Microgym bikes at the end of last school year. The school's Green Read and Ride room houses 26 stationary bikes for children to hop on and ride while reading.

And that's a good thing at a school, like many, that is limited to one 40-minute gym class a week and a 20-minute recess daily.

The "green" bikes are equipped with a bookstand and have the ability to generate electricity for the school as the students ride. The Green Read and Ride program has the triple objective of increasing reading, increasing physical activity, and creating an interest in STEM through its energy-generating technology.

"It is a great option to get the kids moving when they have been stuck inside for a few days in a row," says Misty Wisner, a second grade teacher. She says a favorite time to ride is right after a library visit when they have new books in hand that they can't wait to dive into.

"It is also a great feeling to know that in correlation with our curriculum lesson on Reduce, Reuse and Recycle they can help use our resources wisely by creating reusable energy," says Wisner.

The mechanics of the bicycle are relatively simple, according to Boesel, Green Microgym owner and inventor of the plug-out technology. The rear wheel of the bike is a generator that makes electricity that then gets put back into the building through a wall outlet.

While there are other read and ride programs in schools, the Avoca project may be the very first to include the green aspect.

"I don't know of anyone else doing anything like it," says Boesel. "And since I've been doing this since 2007 and keep my eye on things, I probably would have heard of it."

The bikes were funded through the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, which drove the project.

From the perspective of teachers, the Green Read and Ride room is adding to the learning process.

"Many of us try to incorporate the bikes into our routines and have noticed kids are calmer after riding," says Erin Kovach, a third-grade teacher. "Our principal has invited kids to ride during indoor recess on occasion, and this was very well received."

While the younger grades, kindergartners and first-graders, might spend 15-30 minutes a week on the bikes, the second- through fifth-graders are riding 30-60 minutes a week, and on occasion more.

Programs like this could be one step in the fight against child obesity in Michigan, where Michigan ranks 24 out of 51 for obesity among children 10 to 17 years of age.

"It can only be better for child obesity if they [students] double how much movement they get every day," says Boesel. "Because it doesn't distract from their reading and they can stay focused, it's a complete no-brainer."

Despite the bikes already being in use for five months of this school year, the novelty has not worn off and most kids are still excited to ride the bikes. But some do struggle.

"Some, unfortunately, do not look forward to the exercise and complain that they are too tired after a short time," says Kovach. "We have them take breaks and keep working on their stamina."

Those very children who struggle with fitness or weight issues are the ones the Community Foundation of St. Clair County had in mind when they pursued and funded the project.  It met two of the foundation's three priority areas: healthy lifestyles and cradle-to -career exploration. Since the program already had proven successful as a way to help kids focus on reading while getting exercise, it was a great fit for the foundation.

"From there we were able to put together the right people and partners to begin exploring the program," says Lindsay Parslow, program officer at the foundation.

Two community doctors concerned about child obesity, Dr. Sushma Reddy and Dr. Randa Jundi-Samman, helped the foundation develop a plan. Reddy knew someone who had bought a bicycle generator DIY kit from Green Microgym, so the group decided to add a "green" aspect to the program. 

"We reached out to Adam who was equally excited to take on a whole classroom," says Parslow. "The reoccurring theme was that everyone was extremely excited and motivated to bring this program to St. Clair County."

Now that Green Read and Ride is well underway, the results are weighing positive for teachers and children.

"The most pleasant surprise has been how many students have commented on their sense of achievement," says Steve Churchill, a fifth-grade teacher. "Students really seem to understand the benefits of mental and physical fitness."

While reminders are needed for younger students to keep pedaling , some noise issues and distraction around changing gears (changing gears is "super fun" for the kids according to teachers), and time taken for adjusting seats, all in all the program has been hugely successful.

Therese Damman, principal, was part of unveiling the Green Read and Ride room to the students last June.

"The day I was walking the very first group of students to the Green Read and Ride room, I overheard a student say to his friend, 'I'm so excited. I get to do two of my very favorite things at the same time,'" says Damman. "I will never forget that moment. I believe his quote encapsulates the feelings of the Avoca students. They are truly excited about being able to participate in this program."

According to Parslow, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County is currently in the process of expanding the program to an elementary school in Port Huron.

Like eating vegetables and other healthy foods, exercise and physical movement are good habits to be formed early to help children maintain a healthy weight. And in Michigan, where 13 percent to 14 percent of children are obese, prevention is key.

"I can't say for sure, but if sitting on your couch playing with your iPad can lead to habit-forming behavior, then why can't sitting on a bicycle and pedaling lead to a habit?" Boesel says.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.