Educators Gary Hall and Mike Adams had an innovative idea on how to teach high school students in Delta Junction, Alaska, welding and its associated arts: They would build a boat.
It would not be just any boat. It would be a shallow aluminum vessel 21½-feet-long by 6-feet-wide that would meet all standards to hit the water upon completion.
The coordinators of the project-based vocational-technical program at Delta High School used a grant from Airgas company’s High School Welding Education Initiative.
They devised a plan in which students would design the boat, and piece and weld the aluminum together. Once finished, students would sell the boat to raise money so future classes could create new projects.
“We started building the boat in spring 2021,” Gary says. “Our goal was to finish the project in the fall semester of 2021.”
The pandemic slowed their schedule.
“As of now, we are three-fourths done,” Gary says. “We are now able to install a motor and do testing.”
This is the school’s first project of this magnitude, involving a collaboration of many students working over three years.
Under the new timeline, the boat will be completed by spring 2023, the educators say.
“Our underlying goal is to qualify our students to be employed, to walk into an interview with a background of experience,” Gary says.
Designing and building a 21-foot boat will look good on a résumé.
The high school’s vo-tech program was born 20 years ago when Gary—who has a background in industrial construction and fabrication—and his colleagues decried the defunding of vo-tech education in schools.
Lost in an emphasis encouraging students to attend college were skilled workers in the region, Gary says.
“We said we’ve got to turn this around and bring a vo-tech program to Delta Junction,” he says.
The result was the nonprofit Partners for Progress in Delta. The training consortium is backed by Fairbanks Community College, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the Alaska Department of Labor.
The Delta/Greely School District became a partner. The organization’s goal was “to provide training for any category to help people be employed,” Gary says.
Gary oversaw building of the 9,600- square-foot Delta Career Advancement Center, which opened in 2005 for both the high school and the community’s use. He also was hired to create a plan for Delta High School’s vo-tech program.
Today, Gary and Mike—an engineer and a computer-aided design instructor—teach what they call “relevance education.”
“When students see relevance in what they are learning, they will work harder and learn more,” Mike says. “Another word Mr. Hall and I like to use is ownership of the project.”
Both instructors prepare and guide students with hands-on projects, such as computer designing, welding and torch cutting. They incorporate other classes—what they label “cross-curriculum.” For instance, an English class will be enlisted to write the boat’s procedural manual.
“It’s a different way to teach,” Mike says. “It’s not just lecturing. We’re not telling the student that someday you might use this. We’re showing them how to use it right now. It helps them reach their goal and allows us to be on the same team.”
Putting the Pieces Together
To begin creating the boat, the school received a grant from Airgas, which funds high school welding programs nationwide based on several factors, including the school’s need, welding programs that prepare students for jobs upon graduation and passionate teachers.
Delta High School was awarded the grant two years running. It was one of only two high school programs chosen in Alaska.
“Our boat program has drawn some attention,” Gary says.
First, materials were purchased using grant funds. Then, Mike’s AutoCAD class students used software to design sections of the boat. They created a 3D scale model to test its hull on a “water channel” 32 feet long and 4 feet wide. Mike’s honors physics class looked at the theoretical side of the project, such as the boat’s draft and drag.
Once designed, Gary led his students to prepare the boat’s pieces by a process akin to robotics, he says. Students also used a plasma torch to cut steel and aluminum.
“It’s been a great opportunity to teach my welding students the art of working with aluminum,” Gary says.
Plans are for the students to raffle off the boat, selling tickets to the community—another opportunity to involve other classes at Delta High School, Gary says. Students will create a business model for fundraising and obtain a gaming permit to sell tickets.
Mike says the boat project was a massive undertaking. He worried it might be too daunting for the students, but his fears were unfounded.
“The kids have gotten proficient at it, and it looks professional,” he says. “It turned out not to be a concern.”
Today, numerous vo-tech programs nationwide prepare students for apprenticeships, technical jobs and engineering schools.
“Now, the emphasis is back the other way,” Gary says, noting much of vo-tech education is supported by corporations and state and federal governments. “It just keeps blossoming. It’s hard to stay ahead of it.”
Partners for Progress is expanding its Delta Junction facility with a $2.5 million addition.
Gary and Mike hope their high school students enter the workforce not only with technical skills but the “soft skills” of teamwork and loyalty.
“If we were to summarize our program, what we’re actually teaching here is soft skills,” Gary says. “No matter what they do in their life, they are bringing those soft skills with them. In today’s world, employers are desperate for people with soft skills. They can always teach them the hard skills.”
Both educators hope to continue guiding their students to create large projects such as the boat.
“We have done lots of projects, but this is the big one,” Gary says.
“I’m really proud,” Mike adds. “Schools have built boats, but I’ve not seen a school that has designed its own boat.”
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of this magazine, is taking readers on a yearlong journey, The Learning Curve, highlighting success stories in rural education in challenging times. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.