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Way back in 1863 was the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, a segment of the Civil War that wrought more than 51,000 casualties on that historic Pennsylvanian soil.

More than a century and a half later, high school students are riding their bikes through the area where all the bloodshed and death took place. And they’re likely getting more out of that experience than they could reading about it in any textbook. Words and pictures can go only so far.

The Marion Center Area School District’s bicycle club, now in its fifth year, has the usual benefits a bike club can offer of both social and physical health. And, as a bonus, there is major educational value to the club when the members — sometimes 20 to 25 strong — take trips to historic landmarks such as Gettysburg, which has been a popular destination for this crew throughout the years.

“They get to see the terrain and what the soldiers in the Civil War had to encounter,” says Paul DeHaven, a teacher and coach in the district who helped form the club. “You look across the land and it looks flat. But then you don’t realize that there are drops and hills that the soldiers had to climb. The students get to experience the physical attribute of going across that terrain. It gives you a better perspective on what that war was like.”

Five years ago, a group headed by DeHaven, his wife, Monica, and fellow teachers Chris Peters, Mark Margolis — who is now a principal — and Glenda Cribbs formed the new club.

“We wanted to combine fitness with some history,” DeHaven says. “We applied for a grant and we purchased bikes and a trailer. We built on it from there and now we do usually two or three small rides each year and then a major trip and stay for a couple of nights. We’ll go to historic places like Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry and Antietam.

“With the students, parents and even some alumni who want to ride with us again, we have taken as many as 35 people on our trips.’’

The students, who must pass a grade requirement to participate in the club, select the sites for the longer trips, which are usually 3 to 3 1/2 hours away by car or bus. Some of the historical rides are headed up by guides.

DeHaven says he has a mix of athletes and non-athletes participate. While the stereotypes are that high school students aren’t all that thrilled with history, this group proves the opposite.

“Kids are kids — their attention span is not going to last for an eight-hour ride through history so you have to keep it somewhat limited with their time, but they do like the history of it,’’ DeHaven says. “I feel very fortunate as a teacher here at Marion Center that we have such respectful kids, and everywhere we go we get comments and compliments about how respectful they are and about the questions they ask. You can tell they are engaged. You can tell they are paying attention.”

While they’re learning history, they’re also staying in shape, which is another big benefit of the club.

“The big thing we teach is that if students are physically engaged, they will do so much better academically — studies have shown that,” DeHaven says. “The brain functions with exercise. Some of our kids don’t have bikes at home and just getting that cardiovascular conditioning is a benefit.”

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