April 28, 2015

Innovative woodshop class connects students to community

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Teachers and students work together in the Basalt High School woodshop to bend the future ribs of their greenhouse, which will end up at the Basalt Middle School garden. Left to right are Alfredo Lopez, Emiley Weinreis, Jose Arias, former woodshop teacher Eric Pedersen and Basalt architect Michael Thompson.

Rachel Connor/(co)studio

Teachers and students work together in the Basalt High School woodshop to bend the future ribs of their greenhouse, which will end up at the Basalt Middle School garden. Left to right are Alfredo Lopez, Emiley Weinreis, Jose Arias, former woodshop teacher Eric Pedersen and Basalt architect Michael Thompson.

Students Cullen White (left) and Leo Anguiano work together to finish a cold-frame box in the Basalt High School woodshop.

Rachel Connor/(co)studio

Students Cullen White (left) and Leo Anguiano work together to finish a cold-frame box in the Basalt High School woodshop.

BASALT — Do you remember the greenhouses in the “Harry Potter” films, where Professor Sprout grew her mandrake plants?

A smallish replica of that Hogwarts structure is taking shape in the Basalt High School woodshop. OK, “replica” might be an overstatement. But let’s just say that a greenhouse inspired by the vaguely Gothic structures in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is in the works.

It’s certainly an outside-the-box woodshop project. The greenhouse, characterized by curved ribs that meet in a graceful, 10-foot-high peak, was one student’s design selected out of several designs by a dozen or so other class members as the greenhouse they wanted to build. When finished, this 8-by-12-foot creation is destined for Basalt Middle School, where it will play a role in biology instruction.

“You have high school students designing and building for their clients, and their clients are the middle school students in the science program,” said Rachel Connor, program director for the local nonprofit (co)studio. “That’s a beautiful story, I think.”

The greenhouse and the class that’s building it are products of an unusual partnership between Basalt High and (co)studio. The fundamental idea is a design-build class that enables children to hatch an idea, agree on it as a team and then execute and build it themselves. Yes, there is a woodshop teacher to supervise things, and a handful of professional architects and builders from the community who guide and support the students, but it’s the children who do most of the work.

Sophomore Emiley Weinreis came up with the greenhouse design while doodling in her notebook.

“When kids have a little more ownership over their project, something that interests them and something they design, it’s much easier to get them to do the work,” said Ben Kelly, who teaches woodshop at both Basalt and Roaring Fork high schools. “A lot of them really seize that opportunity.”

Teachers and students work together in the Basalt High School woodshop to bend the future ribs of their greenhouse, which will end up at the Basalt Middle School garden. Left to right are Alfredo Lopez, Emiley Weinreis, Jose Arias, former woodshop teacher Eric Pedersen and Basalt architect Michael Thompson.

Rachel Connor/(co)studio

Teachers and students work together in the Basalt High School woodshop to bend the future ribs of their greenhouse, which will end up at the Basalt Middle School garden. Left to right are Alfredo Lopez, Emiley Weinreis, Jose Arias, former woodshop teacher Eric Pedersen and Basalt architect Michael Thompson.

Hands on, minds on

On a recent Tuesday morning, the woodshop at Basalt High buzzed with the noises of drills, saws, air compressors and sanders. Ten students were hard at work with both Kelly and Michael Thompson, a Basalt architect, on several different creations. The (co)studio woodshop class is a yearlong elective, so at this point in the year, the students can work independently, handle power tools with confidence and solve problems among themselves. Occasionally, they ask questions of the adults, but for the most part, they’re seeking advice, not permission.

As Assistant Principal Jamie Hozack said of the (co)studio class, “It’s visibly and obviously in their hands, and they own it.”

Pieces of the greenhouse were in play on a recent morning, but most students were putting the finishing touches on several “cold frames,” which will be sold to raise money and buy materials for the greenhouse project.

The cold frames are small, low-to-the-ground greenhouses that can be placed over a planter bed to insulate young plants from low temperatures early in the growing season. When the last of the cold frames has been stained and sold, class members will shift their focus completely to the greenhouse, which must be finished by the end of May.

By producing and then selling goods with market value, students in the class have a real-world context for their work, which gives it special meaning.

“I like seeing other people using my work,” said Sergio Gomez, a junior in his second in a (co)studio class.

There also is a tangible sense of teamwork among the students and accountability to one another.

“I like the part where my classmates rely on me,” said Gomez, one of the more experienced class members. “If I do something wrong, it’s wrong for them, too.”

There are both life skills and career skills involved in a project of this kind. Not only do the children get a taste of design and learn to operate numerous tools, they learn how to argue a point in a group and come to an agreeable solution. And all that effort goes into a tangible object with a real-world purpose. Perhaps most important, the act of making things keeps high school students busy.

“You’re not just sitting in a chair,” said Gerardo Martinez, a junior who, similar to Gomez, returned to (co)studio for a second year. “You’re walking around (the classroom), and you’re doing things.”

Before starting on a greenhouse, the (co)studio class built a number of "cold frames," miniature greenhouses that enable gardeners to protect young plants from early-season frosts. By selling the cold frames, the class is raising the cash to buy the greenhouse materials.

Rachel Connor/(co)studio

So what next?

(Co)studio first took root in 2013 and continues at Glenwood Springs High School, where students have completed a concession stand for the high school football stadium and doghouses for Colorado Animal Rescue. Connor and Hozack both hope the program can take hold and grow in Basalt, too.

The strengths of the existing program are many, but the real magic rests in the connection to the broader community, which brings an authenticity to the classroom work. In Basalt, individual community members and businesses have supported the program by donating money and construction materials. Others volunteer in the classroom and purchase the end products.

“What sets (co)studio apart from other design-build programs is the community involvement,” Kelly said.

The (co)studio curriculum also fits neatly into much of the hands-on, group-oriented, project-based learning that is the buzz of the education world. Connor herself was surprised when she asked the students what they would most remember about the class.

“Collaboration and teamwork were the themes that our students said they were going to walk away with,” she said.

The bottom line is the children are engaged and excited. And that’s what keeps Thompson coming back to work with children class after class.

“It’s really fun to see kids get their lights turned on,” he said.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on education coverage. This story was published in the Times on April 27, 2015.

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