Bill Wehrman 2017-05-04 00:23:44
WHILE welding programs teach students the mechanics of making a sound weld, one high school has changed the focus of its “ag mechanics” program to include much more than welding certifications. Highland High School in Gilbert, AZ, has relegated the “shop” mentality of ag mechanics to the past and looks forward with its newly-titled agriscience and engineering program. “We’ve rebranded the program so that college or continuing technical education is an assumption. We set the bar higher,” says Curtis Willems, agricultural education instructor and national board certified teacher at Highland HS. “There are a lot of programs where the goal is getting students certified in welding regardless of what the process or position is,” says Willems. “We try to produce well-rounded students who understand what it takes to actually build something.” Willems took this philosophy on several years ago when some companies in the area were having a difficult time finding good welders. “One local fabricator told me, ‘There are a lot of people that are good welders, but I need welders that can build something,’” said Willems. The Highland program aims to get high school students excited about building and welding, versus welding on practice coupons (generally 2" × 8" pieces of metal). Highland students develop an assortment of skills, such as reading blueprints, creating a bill of materials, understanding production schedules, leadership, and math. Team projects are at the heart of students’ problem-solving skills—and invaluable to the industry. Highland HS’s agriscience program has three areas of focus: animal science, plant science, and engineering and fabrication. Three teachers instruct a total of about 425 students. Willems is the sole engineering and fabrication instructor, teaching 165 students in a total of six classes (two advanced classes and four beginning classes). “My courses connect to the other agriscience classes because my students have the skills to help set up and manage the greenhouse, and fix and repair animal facilities,” says Willems. “Basically, they have the aptitude to provide solutions for any mechanical problems the other classes encounter.” While Willems focuses primarily on welding and cutting— two essential skills demanded by industry—classes in the school’s programs also include introduction to animal systems, small animal care, veterinary science, fisheries and wildlife management, landscaping, industrial maintenance, and small engine technology. Team Projects: The Secret to thinking on your Feet The initiative to try to build something better and faster can make someone a very valuable employee. In other words, how to overcome the challenges that a part presents is very different than knowing how to run a weld bead. “I want my students to understand the importance of improvising and thinking on their feet,” says Willems. “I know that some students won’t be problem solvers, and that’s OK. But in order for students be leaders, our job as instructors is to develop that skill among those who have it.” At Highland, students develop problem-solving skills by working in teams on a regular basis. “In addition to working in groups of four or five, every semester, we also try to work on a project as a class,” says Willems. “Having 30 individuals work as a group helps kids understand the value of teamwork.” Willems encourages his students to form teams to enter contests and events, including the A Cut Above student contest sponsored by Victor, an ESAB brand. Events at county and state fairs also provide team opportunities, including the ability to sell fabricated sculptures to earn money or donate welded items so that local organizations can raffle them off for charity. The potential earnings can be significant. For example, the six Highland students who won Victor’s A Cut Above contest each won $500, and the school won a cutting and welding equipment package valued at more than $4,000. A former student and contest winner, Brett Eschliman, now applies his problem-solving skills to his welding career. “Brett is welding for a living and he’s loving every minute of it,” says Willems. “He’s building some pretty fancy yard gates, working with wrought iron. He builds the hardest ones, because his employers know he can figure out all the new designs, and he likes it because he’s not building the same gates every day.” After winning the contest, Eschliman commented that working together is a key to success. “If someone needed help with something, we just pitched in and got it done. As a result, we didn’t struggle as a team,” he said. “We basically evened out the amount of work we did, and that contributed to a good experience with teamwork,” said Ryland Barney, another contest winner who worked with classmates Cody Gifford and Garrett Shafer to build a life-size sculpture. “On other teams where people [didn’t] pull their weight, that put stress on everyone. If they have to spend time motivating another team member, they can’t focus on their own job.” Part of being a team means learning to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which contest winners learn quickly. “On our team, I did a lot of the math and measurement work because I was stronger in that aspect, where Ryland is more creative and Cody did more of the welding. We each used our strengths, and the work balanced out,” said Shafer. When high school students understand that they don’t know it all, and the skills of others make them stronger instead of being a challenge, they have taken a giant step forward in their career preparation. “Mr. Willems’ class and these welding contests emphasize hard work, team work, and problem solving,” said Matthew Focht, another contest winner. Focht learned about the agriscience and engineering class after an 8th grade field trip to Highland HS. He thought the welding and plasma cutting were “really cool” and signed up for what turned out to be his favorite class. Unlike his classmates, Focht did not plan an industry-related career. He attends Texas A&M, participates in its ROTC program, and plans to enter the military as an officer. Focht does, however, clearly see the value of team fabrication projects. “Being an officer involves problem solving in terms of leading people and understanding that when stuff doesn’t go the way you planned it, you overcome the challenge and accomplish a mission.” Safety First After an overview of the program, beginners start with safety not just because it’s essential, but also because the weather is still hot at the start of the school year (Gilbert is a Phoenix suburb). A few years ago, Willems became a certified OSHA trainer. “Beginning students, when they complete the safety portion of our class, actually leave with their OSHA- 10 card,” says Willems. After safety, he introduces students to shielded metal arc welding (SMAW, or “stick” welding) and oxy-acetylene cutting. After that, he introduces students to project work by asking them to create something out of horseshoes (horses are very popular in the area). These activities complete the fall semester. For the spring semester, he introduces them to gas metal arc welding (GMAW, or “MIG” welding) and plasma cutting. Following the process work, students move on to drawing, learning about different materials, and estimating project costs. In the last nine weeks, beginning students apply all of these skills to building a project. Ten years ago, most students entering Willems’ program had a list of projects already in mind, such as welding on their vehicle or for projects around the ranch. Today, many students struggle with imagining items that they could build. This may be a generational issue, according to Willems. “A lot of kids today have not had much freedom. They’re afraid of trying new things for fear of failing,” says Willems. “I tell them that while they may not excel at welding, they will find some other aspect of the class that intrigues them, such as drawing up projects or cost estimation.” Contests and opportunities Advanced students focus largely on projects and contests. Contest opportunities include the Arizona National Livestock Show’s FFA mechanics projects, Arizona State Fair, and Gilbert’s county fair, as well as other contests associated with the FFA. “The FFA has a contest called ‘Ag Sells,’ where students basically learn how to sell a product,” says Willems. “You’ve got to be able to promote and sell your own product, and it does feed into the things we do here because some of my kids build stuff and want to sell it.” Willems also hosts a welding contest at Highland HS that includes some simple problem-solving exercises. “For example, they’ll have a spool of wire and I’ll give them three or four different contact tips,” says Willems. “They just have to size the wire up to the tip, but they don’t have a lot of time to figure it out.” The contest has been so well received that industry has come in to offer support with prize money and other giveaways. The advanced class takes on projects in teams of two, groups of four or five or as a class. “I think it’s a good experience for them, because at some point we all have to work with other people,” says Willems. Other small units of the class include plumbing, electrical, machinery operation, surveying, and computer technology. “All these things make the program more wellrounded,” says Willems. Extra Credit To create a project outside of class, each student puts in 25 to 30 hours of additional work. “Our instructors push us to do bigger, better things. Projects are a really good motivational technique,” said former student and contest winner Jack Daniel. “I just really love doing these types of things,” says Eschliman. “I’m not into sports at all. I just get super competitive when it comes to welding and always try my hardest.” Shafer adds that, “I like to make quality things and take pride in my work. If I make a bad weld, I’m going to grind it off and weld a new one.” For Barney, the chance to test his creativity and translate sketches into metal creations drives him to put in the extra hours. A well-rounded program would not be complete without community service. Recently, students built some fire pits that they donated, one to the FFA foundation. They also created a garden spot with a fenced-in area on campus. “It’s a way of using their skills to donate or give back,” says Willems. “They’ve repaired something or built something to help out the community.” Of course, an instructor is present when students put in extra hours, and that means long days for Willems. He doesn’t like to advertise the fact that he arrives at 6:30 a.m. and often doesn’t leave until 6:00 p.m., “But if students are going the extra mile, I’ll put in the time.” Bill Wehrman is Global Marketing and Communications Manager, North American Marketing, ESAB
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