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Hot Wheels

It was a wet Saturday morning in Winnipeg. I was feeding my toddler daughter, charging my work flip phone and looking through the classifieds.

A local Aboriginal college was advertising for a full-time teacher to start a welding program. As a journeyman welder by trade who grew up with a vocational teacher as a father, and two sisters who followed in his footsteps, this was the last career move I thought I would ever make.

At the age of 21, I had taken a 10-month Level 1 welding course and then moved through various positions and companies, including production welder, fitter welder, fabricator, shop foreman, right up to sales and estimating. Meeting the qualifications, I decided to apply and lo and behold, I returned from an interview to inform my wife that I had just accepted a three-month term position as a welding instructor.

With a young daughter at home and a high interest 20-year mortgage, my wife was less than thrilled. But seeing an opportunity to teach the skills I had learned, she encouraged me to take on this new challenge.

After a year and a half of teaching adults, a welding instructor position opened up at R. B. Russell, an inner city vocational high school. Initially, I thought the job would be a breeze. However, after only two months of teaching the high school welding program in the traditional way it was not working for my students or me.

Most 15-year-old kids are not engaged practicing padding exercises with 7018/601O electrodes. I needed to get creative. Coming up with projects was easy for me, but matching them with curricular outcomes would be an ongoing challenge.

I have learned much in the last nine years. In these articles, I look forward to sharing some of the challenges and successes we've experienced in our program through a variety of welding projects, both past and present.

One such project arrived last October when I was contacted by the World of Wheels to see if my students would be interested in competing in the high school pedal car challenge for the Winnipeg show. Always looking for projects to spark student interest, yet unaware of the project's expectations and challenges, I naively accepted.

In early November a representative from World of Wheels dropped off our pedal car. As the students opened the box with Christmas-morning excitement, I asked the rep who else would be competing in this challenge. She informed me, five high schools - four auto body programs and our welding program. Looking at this "finely crafted", made in China, pedal car, one student asked if it was made of tinfoil. I realized that, for an industrial welding program, this competition was not a wise decision.

Knowing that auto body and welding are completely different trades, I realized that we were going to have to think out of the box if we had any chance. The rules had stated that we could do anything we wanted to the car, but it must have its wheels, pedals and steering wheel. So as I stared at this tinfoil hotrod, my students stared at their cell phones, waiting for me to come up with an idea that would guarantee us a shot at winning.

Two months later, I'm embarrassed to say, the car was still untouched. As we were wrapping up for winter break, I was almost pleading with students to come up with an idea. As I wished them a good holiday, I was worried that we might have to return the car.

Over the break, out at the mall shopping, I walked past a kiddie ride and my seven year old begged to go on it. Ignoring him and dismissing this epiphany, I returned home. Later that night, a what-if scenario popped into my head. I started researching "kiddie rides", "home-made kiddie rides", "anything on kiddie rides". I couldn't find anything on the mechanical aspect of how these rides worked. Regardless, I had a good idea of how it should work, so I decided to pitch this idea to my students anyway.

After hearing my idea, I couldn't believe how excited my students were to take on this challenge. Okay, maybe they were just glad I came up with some kind of idea. Having an old 50:1 gear box and a one horse power electric motor from an industry contact, we decided to start drawing and mocking up our winning master plan.

It was extremely beneficial to have a teacher candidate in the class with me, as I and several students made 36 trips to Princess Auto in search of sprockets, chains, pillow block bearings and anything else we thought we might need. As the project moved forward, it became obvious how much math and problem solving skills the students were using: gear ratios, timing, tolerances, rpm ratings and making sure everything turned in sync. I would be lying if I told you it worked the first time. We bent shafts and broke welds and stripped sprockets. Meanwhile I struggled to balance my teaching time between students working on the competition and students working on other welding projects. With my attention split between these different voices, I remember in the midst of the project a student Nicholas asking me, "What's next?" I answered him very quickly, "I don't know."

With a look of shock on his face, I replied as calmly as I could with ten other students awaiting my assistance, "I'm sorry, but I've never built a kiddie ride before."
"So what if it doesn't work?" he asked.

I was never worried that we couldn't build this project. I was a little concerned if we would meet the deadline required.

As we neared the end of the build and purchased the lighting for it, we faced the challenge of competing with high-end paint jobs on these cars. With a two-inch dollar store paintbrush in hand, we started painting the base of our kiddie ride. We then used SOS pads, sanding paper, angle grinders, oxyacetylene torches and anything else we could think of to make our paint job look old and vintage. As we bolted our totally untouched pedal car to the moving plat-form of our kiddie ride, we knew we had a shot at winning this competition.

On a Friday morning in March we set up in the Winnipeg Convention Centre at the 42nd World of Wheels. As the other high school auto body shops brought in their pedal cars I remember hearing a student say, "Can they enter that? They didn't even touch the car."

Calmly, Alex, one of our students, turned to him and said, "All you did was touch the car."

We returned the next day to see a red ribbon on our car stating second place. Initially, a little disappointed that they didn't take first, that changed when people started congratulating them. As little as teenagers express emotion, I could see a spark of pride in their eyes.

This year, we're back in the World of Wheels, challenging ourselves in the motorcycle class. Drop by the Convention Centre this March and see what we've created.

"If you're not burning, you're not learning."

ABOUT MIKE JOHNSTON
Mike Johnston is a journeyman welder by trade, who has spent the last 10 years teaching welding in the inner city. He started welding at the age of 21 and cycled through a variety of positions including production, fitter/fabricator, construction, shop foreman and sales in the welding industry.

Mike currently works at R. B. Russell Vocational High School in Winnipeg and enjoys spending summers at his family cottage in Ontario with his wife, young daughter and son.

– Courtesy of the Canadian Welding Association and Engage Magazine.

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