One of the first assignments students are given when school resumes each fall is often an essay about "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." While other kids may describe camp or travel or jobs, 15 year old Austin Granger and four of his friends have something more unusual to write about. The boys spent their summer vacation using plastic building materials to construct the world's tallest toy roller coaster.
Since he was a little boy, Austin Granger has enjoyed constructing different shapes using toy building pieces called K'Nex.
"I think K'Nex is the most versatile construction system that's out there," he says. "You can pretty much build anything that you can imagine. It doesn't matter what it is. You can pretty much build anything."
The thing that Austin wanted to build with his K'Nex set was a roller coaster.
"When a kid named Brandon Davis in New Jersey had built the world's tallest K'Nex roller coaster at 8.7 meter tall," he says, "I thought that was an interesting idea that I never tried before. So, I thought I should try to compete with that."
Austin says his goal was to set a new record… and he did.
"Well, it IS a world record. On the K'Nex roller coaster web site, it has been recognized as a world record," Austin says proudly.
To make his roller coaster, Austin started with 3-D computer software created for designing real roller coasters, then modified it to fit his plastic modeling pieces. Finishing the project required collecting 15,000 K'Nex pieces and recruiting what he called "Team Aussam" consisting of four of his friends: Sam Ihlenfeldt - the 'sam' in Aussam, Stephen Walker, Paul Davis and Nehemiah Nesheim, who all say they learned from the experience.
"I helped design that track layout. I may use that later in my life," Stephen says. Sam says, "K'Nex is very mathematical. It took a lot of time. It worked a lot but then it fell over two or three times, and we had to rebuild the whole top section and a lot of the middle section." "Patience--lots of patience with the things going wrong and having to redo stuff. I've learned to work better with others of this group," Paul says. "It's like a major engineering project, but it's made out of K'Nex, like we are actually engineering something," Nehemiah says. "So many creative ideas. It inspires me into thinking that we teenagers can do things that adults can do."
The collective enthusiasm of the group resulted in a 10-meter high structure that rises above the roof line of Austin's house in St. Paul, Minnesota. His mother, Renee Granger, says she was worried when the boys climbed a 7-meter ladder to put the track together.
"It was scary seeing them up there," she says. " I remember coming out of the kitchen one day and seeing two other boys on the ladder and another boy on the deck and he was throwing K'Nex pieces at the two boys on the ladder. That's the only time I really got angry and upset. So the main safety rule was that only one kid on the ladder at a time, nobody could be distracting him, or throwing things at him or teasing him while he was on the ladder."
Austin's father, Adam Granger, had to put his own summer projects on hold to free up the backyard for Austin's project. He says he wasn't always patient and couldn't wait for his son's project to be completed, but admits the whole process was a positive learning experience for him and the boys.
"They are really nice guys with good brains. It was real fun to sort of get to know them," he says. "At the same time as we were watching this, we were seeing how they worked out their conflicts, problems and disagreements and all that. It was a real growth thing… I guess parents look for that in their children. I really saw it as a growth thing for all of them."
Aussam team member Stephen Walker's mother, Gretchen, agrees. "I think my son learned to work with others," she says. "The friendships that he gained have been important. I've enjoyed seeing that. I think he has also gained satisfaction of knowing that 'I helped on this. I worked on this.' He learned also to be patient."
All the parents say it was nice to see their teenagers using their free time constructively instead of just watching TV or going to the mall. As for the Team Aussam members, they hope building the world's tallest toy roller coaster will be the beginning of a smooth ride toward achieving other goals in life.