Basalt High students are building cold frames with help from architect Michael Thompson (left), Rachel Conner of (co)studio (2nd from left), and wood shop teacher Eric Pedersen (right). Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

BASALT – Making a profit is the incentive for a unique woodshop class at Basalt High School. Students of divergent ethnic groups are working to mass-produce cold frames, an affordable product that will extend the growing season for local gardeners and farmers.

Cold frames are portable, plastic-covered growing spaces that keep seedlings warm in early spring and keep frosts at bay in late fall. Students in Eric Pedersen’s woodshop class are not only building cold frames. They designed them and fabricated scale models with help from community mentors.

“Since the vocational training program was cut in 2009, there are none in the valley now,” said Rachel Conner, program director for Houses for Higher Education, based in Carbondale. “Our program is designed to get students to design and build, and to get those skills back into the classroom. The cold frames project involves math, money, verbal communications, problem solving and much more.”

Basalt wood shop teacher Eric Pedersen is donating his time to teach students how to start a business in light industry. Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

Design and build challenges

Conner works through (co)studio, an educational initiative that offers design/build classes at three high schools in the Roaring Fork Valley – Glenwood Springs, Basalt, and Carbondale. This program is funded by donations and infuses core subject learning with design thinking, hands-on technical training, and industry relevant mentorships.

Conner initiated the cold-frames project with Pedersen last spring. The two worked the program through the school administration as an accredited class.

Pedersen has been teaching for 20 years at Basalt High, and he’s donating his time for a project that demands hundreds of hours.

“Eric believes in what we’re trying to do,” Conner said.

“The real thrust,” Pedersen said, “is doing a start-up and creating a business. These students are taking it from concept to design to development to market research to sales. They do cost projections and profit calculations. They do marketing and will create a brochure.

“Basically, it’s light manufacturing with hands-on skills, and it’s about growing food. I read on a website that if you grow your own food, you’re a radical,” he said.

This technical drawing by Basalt senior Carlos Cervantes shows promise for an aspiring architect. Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

Putting Their Heads Together

The class started with technical drawings, which were a stretch for most of the students.

“We all came up with ideas by putting our heads together,” student Tucker Schoon said. “We tried to come up with something that offered the best payback with the best design.”

When asked why he registered for this program, Schoon said, “This class teaches good skills that will come in handy later in life.”

“First we wanted to build a complete greenhouse,” said Carlos Cervantes, a Basalt senior who said he hopes to become an architect, “but that got scaled down to cold frames.”

“We wanted them to build something smaller to develop their skills,” said Conner, who suggested that a greenhouse might be possible next year.

“The greenhouse required a permit,” Pedersen said, “which takes a long time to get and is a huge amount of work, so for this class we went with cold frames.”

“The permit process is all part of the experience,” Conner said, “so future students may learn that process with the full greenhouse. They will also learn how to gain a rapport with the state, which issues the permit.”

A student in Eric Pedersen\ Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

Packaging a Carrot

The students divided into teams of two to create competing designs and models. Dave Argo, of No Name Architects in Glenwood Springs, volunteered as a mentor and worked with the students on technical drawings.

Before the drawings, however, Conner and Glenwood Springs teacher Mathew Miller challenged the student teams to design containers for a variety of vegetables. The students had only cardboard and tape at their disposal.

“One design team had a boy from El Salvador and a boy from China,” Conner said. “They could hardly communicate, but they created a container for a carrot.”

Argo then taught elevation, plan sections and precision in designs from which they made their scale models. Those designs and models were then critiqued by architects like Basalt greenhouse designer Michael Thompson, a professional mentor for the program. The winning design became the template for the cold-frame prototype that students completed last week.

“The technical drawings and scale models were difficult assignments,” Pedersen said.

“We learned that it takes a lot more than it seems to build something,” student Gerardo Martinez said. “It’s a lot of work. I like to build things, but the design part was something new to me.”

“I think it’s fun to build things,” said Chinese student Ming-Xiong Li, who goes by Delen. “I want to be a mechanic, and this is the only hands-on class offered here.”

Scale models fabricated from technical drawings challenged Basalt students like Ming-Xiong Li. Credit: Paul Andersen / Aspen Journalism

Community Support

Conner lined up donors like American Clay Works, a greenhouse-supply company in Denver run by Scott Swenson, who provided a discount on materials. Lowes, in Glenwood Springs, gave material donations and discounts on other supplies.

Valley Lumber in the Basalt Trade Center offered materials if someone would match half of the cost. Mark Regan of Regan Construction stepped up and made that gift happen. The town of Basalt gave $500 to the project.

When it was done Pedersen’s students had a total $2,500 worth of materials to work with, including high-quality polycarbonate plastic for the cold frame covers. Students are making two cold frame sizes for potential customers, the larger at 4-by-8 feet.

“Now that we’ve made a prototype, we’ll make them faster as a quality product through an assembly line.” Pedersen said.

“We have enough material for 12 to14 cold frames,” said Conner. “We’ve already sold one to Roaring Fork High’s ag/bio program. The biology department at Basalt high has ordered another, and one student gave one to his mother for Valentine’s Day.”

“We hope to sell them in the $130-$300 range, according to size,” Pedersen said. “And we are going to make a profit.”

When asked what the class will do with those profits, Gerardo Martinez had a ready answer.

“We’ll save the money and invest it in a full-size greenhouse for next year,” he said.

“We’ve learned in this class that one-half of all Americans try to create their own businesses,” Pedersen said. “We don’t want to lose that entrepreneurial spirit, so these students are having that experience.

“Another important part of this is community involvement with education mentors. The idea is to build community that way,” Pedersen said.

“It’s a kind of enterprise club where different skills are mentored by community experts,” Thompson said.

“We think they’ll have more orders than cold frames,” Conner said. “Next year, the veterans of this class will come back and work with new students. This has real-world relevancy and is a rich learning experience.”

Editor’s note: This story was done in collaboration with the Aspen Journalism Land Desk and The Aspen Times, which published a version of it on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.