TOWNSHEND — Connecting kids and bicycles is part of a new educational initiative at Leland & Gray Union High School.
Nine students in grades 9 through 11 are enrolled in Project Bike Tech (PBT) and Bike Tech in School, a bicycle education program similar to auto shop, but for bicycles.
"I'm over the moon," says lead teacher Kevin Burke, who is also the school's snowboard coach and a lifelong biking enthusiast. "I'm super excited."
He says "it's just really exciting to be able to teach something I've been passionate about my whole life. Just like when you're in a professional group, and you go out to a conference and start to meet those who are like-minded."
"In spite of the age difference, the fact that we're all passionate about bikes makes it so awesome," Burke says. "And it makes it so easy to teach."
The nationally acclaimed organization and program uses bicycle education to teach core academic subjects while simultaneously instilling a lifelong enthusiasm for bicycles and their role in promoting sustainable transportation and healthy living.
Local resident and bike enthusiast Dave Cohen helped organize an Oct. 27 open house about the program. He and some friends rode bikes to the event from Brattleboro, and students offered demonstrations and tours of the shop.
With its unique curriculum and hands-on approach, the PBT program aims to equip students with essential skills and foster their connections to the bicycle community.
"We are thrilled to partner with Project Bike Tech to bring this innovative program to our students," says Burke. "Bicycles are more than just a means of transportation; they represent a gateway to learning, personal growth, and career exploration. Through this program, we aim to inspire our students, broaden their horizons, and empower them to embrace the bicycle lifestyle."
Leland & Gray did a schoolwide survey last spring when school officials learned of the program, then narrowed it down to those who would be available for the full year, which this program requires.
"Most of them are already in bike culture," Burke says. "They've been riding and building and breaking down bikes for years. It's really awesome having them in this inaugural excursion because they're passionate, and their passion is already exuding out to other students who had no clue."
The class meets for 80 minutes four days per week. Each of 10 work stations in the classroom/shop has its own new bike and set of tools. Students dismantle the bikes and learn as they go.
"All the bikes are the same, so they're learning using the same references," says Burke, who is also bringing in bikes from those piled in back of his house. He's used them when teaching an applied technology course in which the students also document the process.
Now that he's put the word out, others are bringing in more bikes, "so the kids are deconstructing them, too, and understanding new, small discoveries along the way," Burke says.
Sophomore Colin Dunleavy-Mercier says he wanted to take the class because he already works a lot with bikes and does a lot of mechanical work on cars, lawnmowers, and four-wheelers as well, "so taking the class as a starting mechanic for bikes is really helpful."
"This was a great opportunity to learn more, and it also gives me the opportunity to start my own shop maybe some day," he says. "We take all the bikes apart to just the frame, and we have to make sure it's all working properly. We go through the entire bike. It's really fun."
Dunleavy-Mercier says most of his friend group is in the class with him.
"We all come to class together," he says.
For first-year student Patrick Clish, the class is a chance to connect with his late grandfather, for whom he is named.
"I've never been interested in learning about how bikes work but, this past summer, my grandfather died and he gifted me his old mountain bike," Clish says. "Ever since I've been really interested in learning more so that I can get outdoors more, and I've really enjoyed it."
Clish thinks the most difficult part of dismantling a bike is "remembering where everything goes when you put it back together."
"But when you're taking a bike apart, with an older bike, it's trying to loosen that one bolt that won't come loose," he says.
The students are keeping logs of their work, choosing to do so in writing or via video or photos.
"Whatever method helps them best remember the process," Burke says.
Clish has been so inspired by the class so far that he's applied for a job at Norse House, the bike and ski shop at the base of Stratton Mountain.
Harmony Gleason, a sophomore, is the only girl in the class. She decided to take it "for something to do, to really learn about, that I had no knowledge of."
"When I came into the class, I knew absolutely nothing, and I'm still learning, but it's getting there," she says. "It's a nice thing to have in the morning, to start A-block with something hands-on to do that I can ask a lot of questions about that doesn't stress you out."
She plans to go to college and art school after graduation - but, she says, maybe bike work will be a "side job."
The Bike Tech in School program offers a credited elective that uses bicycle mechanics as a platform to teach Common Core and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) elements.
Burke is now working with other teachers and the school curriculum coordinator to integrate math and science standards into the course. He expects that to start in earnest in the next semester.
"Because this is brand new to us, we're treading lightly, getting to know the curriculum and the students," he says.
The school applied for grant funding with its usual request for various program money to the Stratton Foundation. However, says Burke, because PBT didn't come to school officials in time to "fully develop the ask," the money was not forthcoming for this year.
The needed one-time $65,000 setup cost to participate, which is a discounted rate, has been paid through the operating budget.
"We had some surplus money at the end of the last fiscal year, so we put that toward it, and we had some left this fiscal year for a program that came in under what was budgeted, so that's how we were able to cobble together enough money to make it work," says Superintendent Robert "Bob" Thibault.
Thibault called PBT a "fantastic opportunity for kids. Having a small school in rural Vermont that's begun to lean toward a project-based program to engage students and prepare them for life after high school, the bike program really fits in so well."
Leland & Gray "can partner with repair shops in the community and find opportunities for future employment," he continued. "We're just so excited about what it can bring for kids."
The program was first being discussed with students last spring, when Thibault was the school's principal. He said that when those conversations happened, "The kids would say, 'What? Wait. You mean I get to work with bikes? That's so cool!' So yes, it does engage them."
In the program, students not only delve into the world of bicycle mechanics but also gain proficiency in subjects such as geometry and city planning. The end goal is to provide them with a well-rounded education that combines theoretical knowledge and practical application.
"Our hope is that we'll be able to achieve all of that," Burke says. "I've already introduced the concept of trail building, and that means you have to reach out to your community and find out who's in charge of trails, who owns the land, and what kind of things do you want to do."
He says that's "part of community building and road use and how bicycles are seen on the road, because Vermont roads are interesting."
"And with Brattleboro making huge strides over the past 10 years to get bike lanes and include biking as part of their planning, it's huge," Burke adds.
In addition to rebuilding each component of a bicycle individually, students do have tests, particularly around the proper way to use tools and the few chemicals required (WD-40 and chain degreaser) to test that students understand proper ventilation and safety practices.
Upon successful completion of the course, students will receive certificates of completion attesting to their knowledge of bicycle mechanics, credentials that they can show to future employers.
Project Bike Tech's proprietary curriculum is classified under the Transportation Sector of Career Technical Education as an "Introduction to Systems Diagnostics, Service and Repair."
The company also incorporates career-building skills and techniques as a component of its class. It is hoped students leave the course "knowing the basics of portfolio building, resume writing, and interview tactics."
PBT, based in Colorado, celebrated its 15-year anniversary in 2022.
The program got its start at the Bicycle Trip bike shop in Santa Cruz, California by shop owner/founder Berri Michel, who worked with a team from her shop to build the grassroots program.
The curriculum was created and developed by PBT and industry partners to give students a base in bicycle mechanics.
Additional modules were introduced to encompass the career preparation portion of the class, which develops a student's professional skills, whether they pursue a career in the cycling industry or any other field.
The PBT program is now a thriving program throughout the Bay Area in California and is spreading nationwide.
"We envisioned it being similar to how the auto industry spearheaded the creation of high school auto shop programs back in the 1930s," Michel says. "So we set out to create new generations [who are] passionate and knowledgeable about bikes. And it's such a fun way to learn."
Over the years, PBT has had a successful impact on more than 3,000 students.
"Whether graduates directly enter the workforce or continue to college, they become aware of how core academic principles can be applied in real world situations, how cycling can lead to a healthy and green lifestyle, and how to properly present themselves as a prospective employee, regardless of where they pursue a career," the organization says on its website.
For more information about Project Bike Tech, visit projectbiketech.org.
This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.