St. Francis High School's welding class isn't crafting the usual toolboxes and coat racks -- it's making motorcycles (and training CNC machine operators along the way).
These days St. Francis High School's shop room looks like a professional motorcycle manufacturer, complete with computer-numerical control equipment, machine tooling and paint guns. The students enthusiastically hone welding, machining, engineering, auto body, painting and
design skills, knowing that their reward will be a one-of-a-kind motorcycle of their design.
The biggest winners, however, may be the local manufacturers who might benefit from future employees with much needed technical skills.
St. Francis High School's technology education instructor, Brent Stavig, says students' pride in building such a complex machine is evident, and the project helps them to learn multiple skills while having fun.
"Because this project was something they wanted to do so badly, I've had kids literally hug me [at graduation] and say, 'Thank you. I would have never graduated without you and this class,'" Stavig says. "In a way, it kind of tricks them into learning."
It all began five years ago when Stavig received an intriguing phone call from Greg Stewart, owner of Fatboys Bar & Grill, a local biker establishment. Stavig's welding class had been making individual mini choppers, complete with five horsepower engines -- the motorcycle
equivalent of a go-kart. But Stewart, who has connections in the motorcycle industry, wanted to help Stavig's class build an entire V-twin chopper from the ground up.
"One day I get this phone call and the first thing the guy says to me is, 'You want to build a real one?'" Stavig recalls with a smile.
After Stavig approved the curriculum switch, local businesses donated parts and services. Dennis Kirk, a power sports parts and accessories warehouse in Rush City, gave the class $1,000 to spend at its online store. Complete Tool Grinding offered free access to its services.
Wreck Brothers Auto Body and Collision 2000 provided personal instruction about bodywork, painting and forming components like the gas tank and handlebars. Other businesses followed suit.
After months of hard work, the class competed against other high schools when it entered its completed bike, dubbed the Iron Saint, in the Donnie Smith Bike Show's Chopper Class Challenge at Saint Paul's RiverCentre. The St. Francis High School motorcycle won the People's
Choice Award for its design.
"Channels 4, 5 and 11 all covered the whole thing. The kids felt like little rock stars," Stavig says. "It was pretty cool."
To Stavig's delight, St. Francis High School administrators have been very supportive of the chopper class, investing $100,000 in new CNC equipment -- a rarity among American high schools.
"There are [skilled worker] shortages in these areas and our school understands that," Stavig says. "A lot of schools are cutting these programs and don't even have them, whereas our school has gone completely the opposite way."
The class's popularity among students, administrators and the community inspired Stavig to start a nonprofit called the St. Francis High School Choppers to keep equipment and materials up to date. He's raised money with an annual golf tournament and sales of T-shirts
emblazoned with the class's latest bike design. The funds have helped purchase tool holders, end mills, paint guns and paint products for the shop room. In addition, last year, the nonprofit also funded a scholarship to a technical college-bound student. In the coming year, Stavig
expects to offer scholarships to more graduating seniors.
-- Andrea Lahouze