Pythagoras and power tools: Vail Mountain School students on, under the bus for project-based geometry |

Pythagoras and power tools: Vail Mountain School students on, under the bus for project-based geometry

Inside the half-empty bus. Once completely empty, Vail Mountain School students will be challenged to develop designs for the space that will transform the downcycled bus into a community resource.
Vail Mountain School photo

VAIL — Vail Mountain School freshmen are going under the bus.

The old VMS activity bus has been hauling Gore Rangers to events for years, so many years that it’s time to put it out to pasture. It’s called “downcycling.”

But it has more lessons to teach before it goes.

Grant Gary’s project-based geometry class is gutting the bus and will create new innards for it, with an eye toward math, geometry and community. Art teacher Sarah Sibila will help guide the young Brock Yates wannabes as they combine form and function.

There’s nothing like the rumble of power tools to remind you that you’re in geometry class.

“We saw the bus as a good opportunity to learn,” said Emma Ferer, a student in that VMS freshman geometry class.

Big ideas, small space

Along with their regular classwork in which they prove that, among other things, Pythagoras is still correct, they’ll break into groups and design the inside of their bus. It’s geometry and math because the students have big ideas, and those big ideas have to fit into a relatively small space.

And just so you know, the body on the bus is “a rectangular prism,” Gary said.

They’ll pitch those ideas to a five-person panel — sort of like “Shark Tank” for bus design — and the winner will be built.

“We’ll stay with the basic design, but adjust it. There are always challenges along the way,” Gary said.

Tabula rasa on tires

It’s their tabula rasa, a Latin phrase often translated as “blank slate,” but if you’re a VMS student, then you probably already knew that.

They’ll create their bus/blank slate from a 2004 Chevrolet 3500 Express van chassis with a Mid Bus (now Collins) 14-passenger activity bus conversion. Along the way, the students are using almost every tool known to humanity — sometimes they are power tools, but mostly they provide the power themselves.

They learned about the persistence of time and how both metal and mental corrosion can create the immoveable objects resisting their irresistible forces.

Communication is key, especially when one of you is inside the bus and the other is under the bus, and you’re both trying to loosen the same corroded bolt, and you have to talk through the floor.

A bigger hammer can be handy, but sometimes something more subtle is called for.

Sometimes grunting works, but probably not as well as WD-40 and Liquid Wrench.

Cooperation is required, because they cannot carry a bunglesome 100-pound bus seat by themselves.

They also learn to put tools back where they belong, because someone is going to need them in the extremely near future. Yeah, it’s a communal project, but if someone can’t find something because you didn’t put it away, it’s also self-preservation because you don’t want to be in those crosshairs.

At the end of each class, they gather in the VMS maker space to debrief.

“Things can be more complicated and take longer than you think,” Grant said.

Parents and auction paddles

The idea took root when VMS started shopping around for a new activity bus and was trying to decide what to do with the old one.

It took flight during last spring’s benefit auction, when bidders waved their auction paddles like grade school kids who really really know the answer.

The students understand that they’re in school, but it doesn’t feel like school.

“We’re working on things with our hands, and not just listening while we sit as a desk,” Mack Dorf said.

So it’s safe to say these VMS students have a screw loose, in the best possible way.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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