NEW CANAAN — When teaching her design process creativity unit to seventh-graders this fall, Vivian Birdsall decided to get a little, well, creative.

The Saxe Middle School STEM teacher decided to use the Samsung Solve For Tomorrow contest as a project for the students. The national contest challenges students to use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills to come up with a solution to a community problem.

Birdsall gave this challenge to her seventh-grade class who decided they wanted to do something to increase pedestrian safety in New Canaan.

“The kids were talking about how when they’re downtown or waiting for the bus, cars go speeding by, especially when they’re downtown or crossing the street,” she said. “It’s really scary cause you’re not sure if car is going to stop...they decided that was the project they wanted to talk about.”

The students did research, using radar speed signs to see how fast drivers were going compared to the speed limit. After seeing drivers going 35 or 40 miles per hour in zones with a speed limit of 25 and looking at the death rates from being hit by a car at different speeds, the seventh-graders came up with an idea. Behind radar speed signs, there would be a moving sign that would pop out to warn drivers pedestrians were crossing ahead.

The signs would feature different animals with the prototype being a ram’s head as a nod to the town mascot. If pedestrians were crossing ahead, arms would pop out from the ram with a sign saying “Slow down, little rams ahead.” Each week, the sign would be a new animal with the hope that changing style of the signs would keep people from getting used to it and ignoring it. An accompanying media campaign would make people aware of the efforts.

“It’d be a two-prong thing,” Birdsall said. “There’d be a sign that’d catch someone’s interest and then we’d actually have a media campaign where people would say ‘You know what? We could have people slow down.’”

Pleased by the students’ idea, Birdsall decided to put their real-life exercise to use by writing up and submitting the idea to the national Samsung-sponsored contest. The project is now one of five state finalists in the contest and the only one from Fairfield County. So far, their efforts have already won them a Samsung Chromebook with the promise of more if they win the state competition.

Even if the students do not advance in the Samsung competition, New Canaan residents may still see these signs around town.

For the next part of the contest, students needed to submit an action plan on how to implement their idea. They’ve since teamed up with New Canaan Director of Public Works Tiger Mann and Dan Clarke, manager of facilities for the school district, to figure out how to make their vision a reality. Mann was so impressed, they decided to move forward with the project regardless of whether or not the students win.

“I thought it was really cool,” Mann said. “The kids, they’re pedestrians. They’re out there and see exactly what the problem is. They nailed the problem on the head.”

Mann said in the past, the town has tried adding signage and flashing lights at crosswalks, as well as narrowing lanes to get people to slow down. The town also had a “Slow Down in Our Town” initiative with magnets for people to buy and put on the back of cars.

“They’ve had some very big success, but speeding is prevalent throughout town,” Mann said. “I think that’s a marker of the age we live in now.”

Mann got the students a radar speed sign and Deb Bennett, an art teacher at Saxe, helped the students create the design for the pop-up animal. Facilities donated leftover wood and Birdsall said she would ask the Parent Teacher Council for funds for additional equipment like the motor to move the sign. The students plan to program the signs with help from Birdsall and Mann said he would help get the plan approved by the police commission.

Before the project moves forward, however, Birdsall said the students are waiting to see how far they will advance within the Samsung competition. If the students win with their action plan, they will get $25,000 worth of video equipment to film themselves completing the project.

“The kids have been so great about this,” Birdsall said. “I’ve been teaching STEM as a full-time job for four years. The kids always surprise me with ideas. The kids are so concerned with traffic calming and it’s not even something exciting for kids, but for them it was something important and they decided this is something we need to do for community.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata