Steamboat Springs Students in Eric Nilsson’s physics class at Steamboat Springs High School on Tuesday stood, sat, swayed, leaned and fidgeted at their desks.
There wasn’t anything wrong with them. They weren’t antsy or anxious to leave. Well, maybe some were. But their body language was a reaction to using stand-up desks as opposed to the traditional desks, which were pushed against the back wall of Nilsson’s classroom.
The students were guinea pigs for senior Lorin Paley, who is studying whether her peers learn better sitting or with the option to stand. The study is Paley’s senior project.
Paley said the idea stems from her family’s summers spent at their second home in Wayne, N.J. On the East Coast, Paley said it’s common for people to use stand-up desks in the workplace.
“Sitting at your desk for seven hours a day isn’t very stimulating,” she said. “They found that people sitting around couldn’t get a lot done.”
Paley said her goal was to see whether students, who aren’t afforded the opportunity to stand, could be as productive as workers who use stand-up desks.
“I just think that teachers should know that kids might learn better if they can fidget and move around,” she said. “I think they know that but don’t put into practice as much as they should.”
Nilsson said his students seem more energetic with the option to stand, which they received the week before last. Paley is observing Nilsson’s students for two weeks, or four class periods. Nilsson said he was open to letting his students try stand-up desks because in his previous career as an engineer, many meetings were held while employees stood.
He said in those meetings, people came in and got right to the point. They didn’t get comfortable, he said.
Nilsson said the constant movement of his students didn’t distract him while he taught.
“Once we get going, I don’t really notice it,” he said. “It makes me feel short, though.”
Paley is one of 12 seniors in the senior project class taught by Julie Brownell. The class requires that students choose a project based on a career interest or passion. They’re responsible for all aspects of putting together a portfolio and presentation, which includes a visual component and is given to a group of community members.
Paley’s is one of a few projects that continued through the year. Most students completed their projects by the end of the first semester.
She started building the desks in the fall with help from Dusty Dike, the high school’s industrial arts teacher and her mentor on the project. Paley said it took about 85 hours to build the 16 desks.
Dike said the process of creating the desks involved a lot of trial and error. But eventually, they figured out how to build the desks in a factory-production style.
Paley plans to attend Dartmouth College this fall to study engineering and neural prosthetics. Regardless of what field they enter, Dike said it was important for all students to engage in kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning given the current job market and its demands for multiskilled workers.
He said the experience of creating something, from design to fabrication, is invaluable.
“Lorin is a perfect example of a high achiever, going on to an Ivy League school, but understanding the importance that kinesthetic knowledge and having a basic understanding of mechanics and the way things go together and are created,” Dike said.
The desks and stools are made from bamboo, which Paley ordered on the Internet for $60. They’re held together with hemp. The desk surfaces are Masonite, and the stool seats are beetle-killed pine.
She’s not the first to see whether students learn better if they have the option to stand.
School districts in Minnesota and Wisconsin put stand-up desks in their classrooms, according to a September 2008 story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. According to the story, teachers reported that students had greater attentiveness, fewer behavioral problems, better posture and more enthusiasm. It said students who were typically fidgety or suffered from attention disorders showed the most improvement.
Students in Nilsson’s class said they weren’t sure what was going on when they saw tall bamboo desks in their physics classroom last week, but they welcomed the change. Some said they liked the new desks.
“I realized that I stand up and sit down more than I thought I would with the option to do so,” junior Jenna Peters said. “It brings you out of your comfort zone because you’re so used to sitting in desks. In a way, it’s a good thing.”
Senior Dylan Pivarnik, who stood, sat and leaned on his desk Tuesday, also said he liked the change of pace.
“It’s kind of a new experience, kind of exciting,” he said. “I actually feel a lot more alert. Because you’re standing up, you feel active. It keeps you on your game as opposed to sitting down and being able to relax.”
Pivarnik added that he likes using the desks now but isn’t convinced he’d like them if they stayed.
Paley said she just wanted to see whether the students used her desks, if they stood or sat and if they fidgeted.
From her preliminary observations, Paley said the girls seemed to sit more than the boys. She said about halfway through the class period, nearly everyone sits. She said most people sat while they were taking notes, as opposed to times when the class was more interactive.
Paley said she would have the students answer questions about what they thought of the stand-up desks to complete her research.
She acknowledged that if the district wanted to buy stand-up desks, the investment would be costly and likely wouldn’t be possible, at least right away. Paley said she didn’t take on the project to enact change. She wanted to do something that interested her and demonstrated that no two students learn in the same way.
“Every kid learns differently,” Paley said. “Some kids stand. Some kids sit. Some alternate. It’s good to have the choice.”
— To reach Jack Weinstein, call 871-4203 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org