Industrial by design

A lone shop program at Fort Vancouver High School is equipping many students with essential skills

Teacher David Richards helped Vancouver students assemble wings for an experimental airplane last year in shop class.

Credit: Barry Finnemore
Teacher David Richards helped Vancouver students assemble wings for an experimental airplane last year in shop class.

During the second Iraq war, high school shop teacher David Richards got an unexpected telephone call. The caller was, of all people, the executive officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln, who told him that a sailor who had taken his shop class more than a decade ago fixed in just 10 minutes a mechanical problem that a group of four other sailors couldn’t fix after days of trying.

The young sailor remembered a trick Richards taught him about how to remove a stubborn pilot bearing in a car’s clutch, a trick that came in handy on an aircraft carrier at sea.

“I just called to thank you for teaching him that,” the naval officer told Richards.

Fast-forward to today. Sitting in the Fort Vancouver High School shop where he now teaches, Richards recalls that phone conversation, saying it’s great to hear when his former students are using skills they learned in his class in their current jobs.

“You never know what you throw against the wall will stick,” he says with a smile.

Richards oversees the Vancouver Public Schools’ lone shop program, which educates not only Fort Vancouver students, but teens from other district high schools as well as students from the Washington School for the Deaf.

At a time when jobs that use science, technology, engineering and math are in demand, a program such as Fort Vancouver’s is critical to equipping students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in today’s industrial careers, Richards says. And the program is partnering with business to give them a leg up.

It’s “unrealistic” to think all kids will attend a four-year college or university, he says.

Richards arrived at Fort Vancouver High School in 2003, bringing experience as a mine engineer, design engineer for railroads and an ultra-light flight instructor. His theory of education is straightforward: Young people want to learn and are hungry to be taught skills that will help them in their careers.

“I focus on their motivation,” Richards says. “If you help kids learn a skill, an application that you can make relevant, they’ll learn it better than anything you can pound into them.”

When they arrive in the shop, some students have never held a power drill or used a tape measure, so this teacher starts from scratch. Each student receives 30 hours of job safety training, which includes first aid and chemical and fire safety. They learn to weld in their first semester. They also gain experience using skill saws, grinders and plasma cutters, and take field trips to manufacturers such as Freightliner.

When they’ve completed a checklist of skills, students have the opportunity to build a project of their choice and do community service, such as making bike racks for elementary schools and sculptures in city parks. Among their projects are utility trailers, a hovercraft and bicycles. Three years ago, students for the first time built tables for the school district’s horticulture program. In all, shop students have built 80 such tables to date, giving them real-world project experience.

Richards says that when he arrived at Fort Vancouver High School there wasn’t enough student interest for a full-time program. These days, there’s a waiting list. Not only that, the program has created a culture of trust, ownership and teamwork, fueled in part by a mentoring component where more skilled students help their less-skilled counterparts.

“This is the coolest environment I’ve ever worked in,” Richards says. “Kids come here to function as a team. Everybody gets along. We don’t know how we’ve built it, but we have. I’m not the only teacher here. Every kid mentors every other kid below their level.”

Richards says hands-on learning opportunities encompassing everything from physics and math to health and economics have helped boost interest in the program. A case in point: Several years ago students calculated what it would take to float a jeep in a former lake in Sandy, and succeeded.

“They floated it within an eighth of an inch of what they calculated,” Richards says. “That was the last time I had problems filling my class.”

During the 2012-13 school year, students began assembling wings for an experimental airplane. Richards, a pilot and former flight instructor, bought the airplane kit, which he will own when it’s complete. He is assembling the fuselage, engine and landing gear at his Eagle Creek home, while his shop students develop their sheet metal riveting skills by working on the wings.

The project, a first for the program, was made possible by a $25,000 grant awarded by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and supported by Boeing. The funds went toward new tools and building a large worktable to assemble the wings.

Richards says Boeing supported the project because it equips students with the skills they’ll need to land jobs in aerospace manufacturing, helping ensure a pipeline of talented workers.

Each year, high school graduates who took Richards’ shop classes reconnect with him. Some of them return to the school as guest speakers to share how the program helped them in their careers.

“They come in and say ‘thank you’ and hand me a can of Mountain Dew,” Richards says. “That’s what keeps me going.”

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