• Steve Zoski

Views from a Ballpit

Updated: Feb 15


I have no background in construction but I still had a ball working at the first ever BUILD IT: Construction! expo, produced by Pathway X Events. It took place in a seemingly ordinary neighborhood on a seemingly ordinary day. But something powerful happened inside the sunny Iron Ridge warehouse on a side street of Ferndale's Woodward Avenue on the first morning of Spring 2018.

At 8:45 a.m. eight activity stations were ready to go with construction industry workers and trainers, awaiting the oncoming entrance of 120 eighth graders who were making their way to this venue on school busses. As they entered the white-bricked building and pooled into a waiting area, not really knowing what to expect, they were given a short overview of the fun they were about to have and moments later, they began to flow into the large warehouse space.

From the ceiling hung three-foot-tall metallic hand-constructed numbers that twisted in the air like ornaments demarcating stations: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. Under them were hard-hatted bricklayers, electrical workers, operating engineers, plumbers, and even robots next to 3D printing machines.

Sitting on a wooden ledge at station 3 and surveying the scene, the energy in the giant room was contagious. The sound of vehicles backing up, bricks being laid, and nails being hammered and behind it all the steady beat of DJ Vince, who was playing the tunes to keep us all in an upbeat mood. The chatter of teens taking photos and playing around was not unlike the hustle and bustle of a New York City street inside a tight space but instead of suits and ties it was hoodies and jeans. Instead of Wall Street bankers it was creative kids who, in the next five years, would be pressured into college or doing something with their young lives that might or might not be in their control.

Build It: Construction was the first introduction many of these 8th graders have ever had with real jobs in any industry. But it also had something almost every kid, including “grown ups” like me and Shelby had seen and even played in many times: a conversation starter in the form of a colorful pit of plastic balls.

My station partner, Shelby McPherson is a Construction Project Engineer. I have a degree in Political Science. We couldn’t have had more different career paths but today we had the same job: to get these young students to open up and talk about what it could mean to be a part of the construction industry and what their impressions were of this type of work.

Shelby and I stood by the Pathway X creation: a castle of creativity with the fresh scent of recently cut lumber and lamplight labor. The 8th graders and their group leaders, some high schoolers, teachers and even some business leaders, seemed naturally drawn to our ballpit at station number 3. Whereas almost every other station was introducing some construction concept or career pathway completely new to them, the ball pit was simply that familiar place they had known since early childhood, that place that usually smelled like McDonalds fries but here smelled like brand new wood. The ball pit activity station was actually two parts, experiencing the ball pit and BUILDING the ball pit. Immediately adjacent to us were students working closely with Ferndale architects, 5/8th's, who drew up the design for the ball pit. They were working with the 8th graders from blueprints, getting the kids hands on hammers and drills, and putting together a duplicated replica of the ball pit we were playing in.

Students climbed or hopped into our pit: many submerging themselves, but most sitting on the wood siding. They took selfies and snaps. After a few minutes of relaxing, the kids were introduced to the game by Shelby and I and were presented a soft plushy soccer ball larger than a grapefruit but smaller than a bowling ball. Everyone tossed it around and whoever caught it would read one of the questions written in Sharpie on the ball out aloud to everyone in the pit. There were a wide variety of questions: many taken from real life job interviews at top companies across the Country.

Questions were contrived to get the kids talking to each other and to learn some of their perceptions about careers from people their age. Curious? Here is a sampling of the questions and some of the 8th graders answers.

  • "What is your favorite subject in school?"

  • LUNCH. SCIENCE.

  • “When you were ten years old what did you want to be?”

  • TEACHER, PSYCHIATRIST. I USED TO WANT TO WORK AT McDONALD’S. PRINCESS. OWN A TOYS ‘R US. BE A FASHION DESIGNER.

  • "What is your favorite song? Sing it to us."

  • "What candy bar would you be and why?"

  • "What's your favorite element from periodic table?"

  • Hydrogen, of course.

  • "If you could have any superpower what would it be?":

  • Invisibility!

  • How would you test an elevator?"

Morgan, an eighth grader from Ferndale, answered that last question, saying “put different weights in there and see which ones make it heavier" and then told us tales of how she had once proudly built a marshmallow house when she was younger. Others around her then began an entrepreneurial discussion where they tossed around the idea of building their own ball pit and charging a fee to customers in their parents backyard.

Another attendee, fifteen-year-old Christian, already had an idea in his head of how to measure and make the ball pit, before he even got to the event. He had thought about careers when he was nine years old, already having an idea of what he liked and as the years went on, he pieced together his interests. He told us “that’s when he started figuring out what he wanted to do to make money”, but not everyone was like him, he said, adding that the expo was “empowering”. Perhaps, he is a little more forward thinking than the average middle-schooler, but hearing these kids open up and share their interests was empowering for us as well.

Wheeler Winslow, 18, a student at Wayne State and recent graduate of Ferndale High School, was leading a group of about fifteen 8th graders, from station to station. He said his experience at Build It: Construction was for him "educational," adding that "they took a lot of kids who didn't know about construction or anything in that field. It was a lot of learning and very fun, a very good life changing experience".

Shelby and I, when we weren’t picking up ball pit balls from all around the floor, agreed that our activity station presented a unique mechanism for informal learning and career exploration.

Winslow told me he would ask his students at each station, "Is this something you want to get into?," and that most of them "had pretty positive answers." One of the people in his group said at the brick station, he really liked that station. “We were trying to go on to the next station and he would just stay there and do all the bricks. He said it was easy and he heard about the money and he was like 'Yeah, sure. I love it. I know what I'm going to do now!"

Best of all, Winslow added, that the "environment made them feel comfortable" rather than pressured to deciding it all - career wise, right here and now: "I recommend a lot of people do this, even younger."

Pathway X’s early evaluation data (from pre and post surveying the 8th grade students) shows that there's data to back these accounts up.

  • For every three students that entered with no interest in a career in construction, one of them left considering this career path for their future plans.

  • Over 70% of students surveyed before the showcase didn't know what a skilled trade was. After the event that percentage dropped to 40%.

  • Over 86% are likely to recommend this type of an event to a friend.

It was a day unlike any other. A day as varied and vibrant as the balls in a ball pit. Everyone's individual takeaway was different, but everyone experienced something new, including me. I can’t prove that all these kids will eventually go into construction but I do feel that this day of exploration in the careers of construction opened their minds and mine. I can’t wait to dive back in and see what experiences Pathway provides next!

~ written by Steve Zoski with limited editing by MW