Humanitarian Lecture Series: Marybeth Lima

Humanitarian engineering can affect many, and most often one does not think of the needs that children living in some communities have. Marybeth Lima presented on “Building Playgrounds, Engaging Communities: Creating Safe and Happy Places for Children,” marking the last lecture of the Humanitarian lecture series. Lima started her playground building career soon after graduating from Ohio State University with a PhD in Food, Agriculture and Bioengineering in 1996. From there she moved to Louisiana where she took a job as a teacher of an engineering design course.

“I was tasked with teaching a first year design course. I had a bunch of freshmen in biological engineering and my students were interested in so many different things.” Lima said. “About 25% of our students go to medical school.” Lima had a lot of students interested in biomedical engineering, as well as the environment and agriculture. “So I started thinking to myself what kind of design project can I chose that has got universal appeal, that everyone can relate to. I came up with playgrounds.”

“The very first year I taught the playground design course, I did not know how to design a playground. I stood up on the first day of class and said to my students. This semester we are going to design a playground at Beachwood Elementary School, I do not know how to design a playground right now, but we are going to learn together and we are going to do it together. When I got my course evaluations back at the end of that semester the highest metric I had was out of anything that was asked was ‘Instructor thoroughly understood the subject matter.'”

Lima recalled the night where she actually started taking these designs and using them to build playgrounds. “I pitched this idea to a bunch of friends around dinner and one of them jumped up and said, ‘I am a teacher at a local public school and we really need a playground, why don’t you work with us?'” Upon visiting the school and seeing the playground Lima was shocked that the playground was in such poor condition.

Lima got started designing the playground and then building it, and the whole process took about three years. “But after we finished the first playground, there was a nice little article in the paper. and the very next week I had another call from another school principal saying ‘Can you do another playground at our school?'” Before finishing with the second playground Lima got another call from another school principal. After getting the second call Lima realized that the need for playgrounds were not isolated events, so she connected with the public school system and learn about the state of the playgrounds in her community.

“Baton Rouge public schools, like many public schools systems around the country, have no money set aside for playgrounds in the budget, so when a new school is constructed a playground is constructed as well. This is the only time there is money set aside for playgrounds. Most of the schools in Baton Rouge were built in the 60’s and 70’s. Modern playground safety standards were not published until 1981, so many playgrounds are not safe, but there is no money set aside to upgrade them.” As playgrounds started to fall apart, as they usually do after four or five decades, they need to be replaced.

Lima said that from year to year her playground design program has changed quite a bit. At first it was just about building a playground, but as time went on it became more important to adapt the playground to fit the “soul” of the community.
For this reason her design students are required to help as reading tutors for the public schools they build playgrounds for. This helps the students connect with the children of the school.

Now she has two sections of design classes per semester and each section gets a public school to work with. Students are required to gather input from children at the schools as well as the teachers, parents, physical education teachers, and art teachers before creating a design. “By the end of the semester each student group has created a design, and we normally have 8 to 10 designs for the same school.” Lima explained this redundancy allows her the children and the “school community” to pick the best design aspect from each group.

Lima and her students have now built 28 playgrounds, including twenty-three service public schools, three service survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and two service children with special needs. Additionally Lima has nine more custom designs ready to be built, but no funding to build them with. She claims this is probably the most difficult part of the projects, recalling times where she had to be creative and persistent when writing grants and fundraising for these projects. Lima gave one example where she wrote a grant that was supposed to be used for buying teaching equipment, so she claimed that the playground she wanted to build would be used to teach children how to calculate areas, perimeters, and volumes. Lima also recalled a time when she was rejected nine time before getting a grant that would pay for the playground. Other funding she does comes from the community through penny wars, bake sales, and similar tactics.

Lima’s entire story can be found in her new book entitled “Building Playgrounds, Engaging Communities”. Lima described goal for the book as a reflective inspiring story that encourages people to get involved in their communities. In this spirit, Lima finished the lecture with a quote by Rachel Naomi Remen: “When people help, they see life as weak. When they fix, they see life as broken, When they serve, they see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”

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