Gabe Schneider has amassed an impressive store of cardboard.
The sixth-grader from Liberty Middle School sees the material as a key to creativity, raw material that can result in inspired expressions of creativity and engineering. In Schneider's eyes, discarded boxes and packing material are building blocks for massive sculptures and painstakingly detailed models.
"I call myself the 'Cardboard Nerd.' I have a huge box just about the size of my mom's car full of cardboard in the garage," Schneider said. "She won't allow me to collect anymore. She says I have too much."
Schneider isn't the only student at Liberty, or in the Cherry Creek School District for that matter, who's been stockpiling cardboard. Students across the district are prepping for this year's Cardboard Challenge, a competition that calls for stunning art projects rendered out of cardboard and other recycled materials.
This year, Schneider and his fellow students in the school's Art Club are working on a massive entry for the annual contest, scheduled for Oct. 13 at Smoky Hill High School. Liberty students are working together to create a model of the scale school itself, a project that's set to include miniature people, cars and landscaping, as well as the building. The entire piece will be made entirely out of cardboard, and its construction demanded more than just savvy art skills. Students had to employ elements of engineering, math and precise design to recreate the dimensions of the Aurora campus.
"We had a brainstorming session, and one of the kids decided that we should do a scale model of Liberty," said Laura Sweeney, art teacher and Art Club director. "All of the Art Club students voted and that's what they wanted to do. We've been working on it for a little over a month now … We had a bird's-eye view of the school on the projector screen and we decided how much room we were going to have in a car to transport it."
From there, the students started working on every element of the project, from finalizing the dimensions of the building itself to creating tiny students and teachers made of cardboard.
On a sunny afternoon less than two weeks before the Cardboard Challenge event, Liberty students were hard at work in the school's art classroom after school, dutifully painting, gluing and cutting pieces of cardboard to figure into the model's final design.
According to Sweeney, the prospect of building a project for the Cardboard Challenge has drawn a whole new crowd of students to the school's Art Club.
"This is the first big project that we've done, and we have had people coming in every week. We've had four new kids today," Sweeney said. "They're all telling their friends that they want to join the club."
That brand of creativity is at the heart of the Cardboard Challenge, a competition inspired by the 2012 documentary film "Caine's Arcade" directed by Nirvan Mullick. The film centers on a 9-year-old boy from Los Angeles who created an arcade made entirely out of cardboard. The project and the film caught the attention of an international audience of supporters; school districts across the country used the basic concept as a way to encourage creativity and better illustrate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-based curriculum for students. The project also launched the Imagination Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering creativity and entrepreneurship for children across the globe.
At Cherry Creek, it's resulted in a district-wide event that encourages the best kind of innovation from students of all grade levels. It's the fourth year that the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation has funded and organized the event as part of their broader mission. That core goal focuses primarily on impacting all CCSD students, investing in innovation and building long-term relationships in the community.
Hundreds of students from across grade levels are set to compete this year, and students like Schneider are looking forward to taking in the full range of creative input from across the district.
The work of his fellow CCSD students has been an inspiration for Schneider, who's attended the event for the past four years. The projects have spurred him to find collaborators and work on his own – in addition to working with fellow Liberty students on the school model for this year's competition, Schneider is also working on a solo project, a scale model of Tony Stark's seaside mansion from "Iron Man."
For Schneider, who is quick to share his plans to eventually become an engineer, it seems there's not enough cardboard in this world to match his creative ambitions.
"I'm a perfectionist," Schneider said. "I love building everything."