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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Shop Rat Nation

Nov. 9, 2007
Lester Graham
The school system in this country in general has been going away from the vo-tech and shop classes. But one program provides an opportunity for college prep students to get some shop experience.

ANN ARBOR, MI (Michigan Radio) - It's the first day of a weekend class at this machine shop near Pleasant Lake in south central Michigan. Advanced milling machines, programmable drills and other metal fabrication equipment line the walls in the brightly lit shop. The students are junior high-school age. They're hearing the dos and don'ts of working safely in a real machine shop. But after that, the assignment of the day is building a scale model of the latest project.

Well, this year, we're doing a two-seat hovercraft," says Chris Salow, the founder of these weekend shop classes, "I always wanted to build a hovercraft since I was a kid, so I'm fulfilling some of those fantasies, I guess. We wanted to actually build something that these kids could actually drive or fly themselves. And so we thought this would be something that would be cool because last year we did a couple of full-size chopper motorcycles and obviously with liability issues and their ages and so on we couldn't let them actually drive them. So, we think to complete the experience of building something hands-on, you should be able to get the enjoyment of being able to operate it.

Salow says he started these classes with private funding because he doesn't think the schools are giving these kids the chance to be as creative as they could be. That's because conventional wisdom at public schools tends to view vocational occupations as not for college-bound students.

The school system in this country in general has been going away from the vo-tech, the hands-on projects in schools and a lot of the shop classes are gone. And our feeling is that regardless of what your career choice is that hands-on experience, everyone should partake in, Salow said.

Salow says a lot of people who want to do home improvement projects or fix their own lawn mower have no experience with tools. He claims even college students in engineering programs often come to their first project and have no hands-on experience with tools.

We called some professors at an engineering college. They didn't want to go on record,but they confirmed some students pick up a wrench for the first time for their final project.

Salow thinks all the kids with an interest in building things ought to get the chance to take shop in school.

And they're constantly getting the kids that aren't able to achieve in the other classes put in their classes," said Salow, "And then the kids that have to high of a G-P-A have a hard time getting in there even if they want to be in there."

In the shop the kids are beginning to assemble the scale models of the hovercraft they'll be building over the next several weeks.

One student talks to himself as he works, saying, " and then for some reason on this one--I don't know if it's right or not,--but she has the glossy side in. Glossy side in? Yeah. See? Glossy side's in and flat side's out. Oh! It goes like this.

One of the teachers of this course on the weekends is Travis Barnett. He's smiling as the kids read the instructions and seeon a small scale how their hovercraft is going to wor.

There's a lot of benefits with the hands-on," said Barnett, "You can tell someone how to do something, you know, ten times, but until they actually do it.

He nods toward the kids as they discover bit-by-bit how the hovercraft works. During the week, Barnett works at an alternative high school in the Concord Community School district. He smiles as the kids working together, discovering on their own, how to make the model work and soon their hovercraft models are skitting along the shop floor. Tyler Dunnig was one of the first ones to get his model running.

I think it's going to be really cool to be able to, like, ride it around and stuff. That's what I'm really looking forward to in all this, said Dunnig.

Hovering around the work tables, Chris Salow checks the kids progress and gives a helpful suggestion here and there. These are his kind of people, the kind of people who make all the things we take for granted work. He calls this culture, his culture,the Shop Rat Nation. And his nation even has a musical anthem he put together with the help of Madkap Studios.

Salow says the schools need to do more to encourage kids,kids of every ability, to pursue the vo-tech track and show them a little more respect for doing that.


Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.