Chopper class in session at St. Francis High School

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2012 - 12:38 PM

The bike they built is being sold on eBay. The teacher and students at St. Francis High School hope to raise money for another project and for tech scholarships.

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John Koller, Jesse Hagford and Mitchell Carlson worked to find the source of an oil leak on the custom chopper that has been their machining class project over the past four years. Carlson is a junior, but graduates Koller and Hagford return to the class to see the project through.

Photo: Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune

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The culmination of an innovative technology class has students at St. Francis High School totally revved this week.

A tricked-out chopper that's been the class pride and joy for the past four years was to go up for auction Tuesday. Starting with a stock frame and a Harley-Davidson motor, about 30 kids have worked on the project, welding sheet metal, machining brackets, grips and controls, and meticulously painting the gas tank and trim with maroon paint and orange flames. Of course.

Technology education teacher Brent Stavig said the hope is that the sale of the bike on eBay will raise enough money to fund the program's next project, and to offer scholarships for students going on to tech programs in college.

They'll get more than money out of the project: Several students have earned college credits in machining and metalwork in the class, and a few already have prospects for machining jobs after that. The project has taught them bodywork, machining, metalwork and welding. Using the shop's state-of-the-art computer numerical control (CNC) machines involves complex computations to make sure precision cuts are precisely where they should be. Employers and tech school representatives are frequent visitors to the class.

One thing Stavig has figured out: Students learn better when lessons are hands-on and interesting enough to be motivating in themselves.

"Would a kid rather build a toolbox and paint it, or would a kid rather build a Harley-Davidson?" he asked. "The motorcycle is the carrot to get the kids' attention."

One morning last week a group of boys huddled around the bike as it roared on its platform. They made adjustments to the timing and peered into the engine, searching for the source of an oil leak. Small problems, Stavig said.

On the other end of the shop, Bryce Brethorst, a senior, had programmed the CNC to bore a hole in the center of a plate he had machined to cover the primary belt.

The classes have been transformative for Brethorst. When he first walked through the shop's doors in 10th grade, he said, he thought the old machine shop mills were drill presses. Now he's getting ready to take a handful of credits -- and lessons learned from a full-time summer internship at G&K Machining in East Bethel -- to Alexandria Technical College next fall. He's planning to pursue an associate's degree in machining.

The class "gave me experience to know what the career's all about," he said. "I've liked it ever since."

His boss, G&K co-owner Doug Gorsegner, said he'd be happy to keep Brethorst on during breaks and maybe after he graduates. He has a similar relationship with an older student. Gorsegner echoed national concerns about the dearth of skilled machinists who are able to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change in manufacturing.

"There's a lot of skill that's involved in that, and for these students to get exposed to it in the program, that's a great chance to test it out," he said. "Bryce is very good. He's focused on what he wants to do and be in life, and he's like a sponge: He'll absorb stuff and loves information."

Brethorst isn't the only student who's been inspired by the chopper project.

John Koller and Jesse Hagford graduated in March, but they've kept coming back to school weekday mornings so they can keep working on the chopper.

Koller also is going to Alexandria Tech, where he is studying diesel mechanics. Hagford is going in a completely different direction, heading to Vermillion Community College to train to be a conservation officer.

But both are proud of the work the class has done. They point out the diamond-cut jugs on the cylinders, which catch the light just so, and the cone-shaped vents, the gleaming exhaust pipes they pulled off a junked pickup truck. They talked about learning, too, from missteps along the way -- the times when the bike should have worked but then didn't.

"You think you've got it, but then you don't," Hagford said. "Then you have to rip the whole thing apart."

Koller nodded. "Don't you hate that?"

Stavig hopes to get at least $5,000 for the motorcycle. As with any purchase of a car or bike, he noted that a buyer should have it thoroughly checked over by a qualified mechanic. But he's confident when they do, it'll pass muster.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

  • CHOPPER TO FIND THE AUCTION ONLINE, GO TO WWW.EBAY.COM AND SEARCH FOR SFHS CHOPPERS.

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