This high-tech tool “connects” high school students with industrial arts, opening the door to careers in aviation

Salmon Rolled Steel on Sitka High School’s New Plasma Cutter Finished by Artist Charlie Skolka Jr. (KCAW/Wolsey)

A grant-funded program at Sitka High School is active again, after a two-year setback during the pandemic. Students in CTE classes get hands-on experience working with equipment that can take their skills to the next level – literally – and put them into jobs in the aviation industry.

The high school store class brings all kinds of images to mind—I’m sure many see it as the “breakfast club” of kids who wouldn’t quite fit elsewhere, a mix of motor bosses and woodworkers tearing up rusty cars and re-tanning backyard storage sheds.

CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machines are nothing new at Sitka High; Students have been using smaller CNC equipment to make vinyl decals and wood-carved projects for several years. But this plasma cutter is bigger and more versatile than anything else a Sitka student has seen. “It’s just your imagination,” says CTE coach Mike Vieira. (KCAW/Wolsey)

But it is time to let go of this stereotype. Sitka High Career and Technical Education (CTE) instructor Mike Vieira operates a $30,000 plasma cutter, a tool that takes a pattern or drawing—it could be anything you can create on a computer screen—and precisely cuts it into rolled steel or other metal.

Vieira says CTE is not your grandfather’s store row.

“Our goal is to graduate students who are ready for high-skill, high-paying jobs,” Vieira said. “And the way the world is shifting — there will certainly be large-scale industrialization — it’s back to the convenience stores that will be able to take out items for single use. So for one time of this and one time of that, and in order to do that, you have to be able On entering with CAD (Computer Aided Design), you need to be able to take a CAD file and output to a machine and tell it how to run its toolpath. From that, and then it’s all up to your imagination.”

Sitka’s CTE program won a $10,000 grant from BP in 2018 to support the purchase of this cutter, which drives an 85-amp plasma torch — similar to an arc welder — over a wide, waist-high table. There’s a piece of steel on the table now with a few dozen shapes cut out of it, a salmon cookie cutter set, sports logos, and house numbers—all designed by the students.

It’s so much fun,” said Nick Calhoun, a senior at Sitka High School. “You can learn how to program a computer and through CAD, it’s really cool, actually.”

SHS student Nick Calhoun used a plasma cutter to make this bear’s head, which will become part of a new sign for Sitka Elementary School. The traditional piece was designed by artist Charlie Skolka Jr. (KCAW/Wolsey)

Calhoun showed me a bear’s head in a traditional North Coast line design, from a pattern drawn by Sitka artist Charlie Skoltka, Jr.. Outside Sitka Primary School. It’s only his third or fourth project on a plasma cutter, and it looks like it could have come out of a pro shop.

“This is here for Baranov[elementary school],” Calhoun said. “It took me about a class and a half. So it’s fairly fast.”

The beauty of a plasma cutter is included in this business: a school district would never commission a custom sign like this – it’s simply too expensive and time-consuming to craft by hand. The plasma cutter provides the efficiency of the manufacturing process to produce something very unique. This is an unusual way of dealing with new designs – just like high-end manufacturers like Boeing are doing now.

Seniors Tyler Barton (left), Nick Calhoun and Corey Williams with a bear head by artist Charlie Skolka Jr., fabricated on a Sitka Hi plasma cutter. Williams recently moved to Sitka from Gustavus, and found the CTE program to be a revelation. Williams said, “When I first signed up for my lessons here, I had a choice between doing creative writing or design manufacturing, and I was hesitant about choosing design manufacturing, because that was my only opening to creative writing, which is something I love to do. Honestly, I decided to do It’s on a whim and I’m so glad I did.” (KCAW/Wolsey)

“We are fortunate to be one of Boeing’s 40 partner schools,” said Matt Johnson, a CTE visitor from Snohomish High School. And we have a curriculum called Core Plus Manufacturing, which is an aerospace-focused curriculum and advanced manufacturing developed in part by Boeing and some of the major vendors they work with. Students earn an industry-recognised certificate at the end of my semester. And if they have that certification, Boeing said, “You’re guaranteed an interview.”

Johnson received the 2018 CTE Teacher of the Year award in Washington State. Mike Vieira met Johnson via social media, applied for funding from New Visions, a program of the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, and offered him an invitation to Sitka for three days this spring to train Sitka’s faculty at CTE. On the cutter, working with the students, who now see the shopping class with different eyes.

“At my school, the plasma cutter, it’s the workhorse,” Johnson said. “It’s almost an instant gratification machine where kids can take an idea and put it on a computer screen, and only minutes later they have something they can then grind and work with, apply color and get something tangible. So it’s a great way to get into a low-risk way to make things really accurate. And after That we can build from there, because I teach flying skills and where to go from there. So for my school, this plasma cutter is where we can hook the kids up with these projects.”

“I was working on an inlay, yes, a wood inlay project on a CNC router,” student Tyler Barton said, thinking about what he was doing before the cutter arrived. “Now I will move on to this plasma cutter. I have already cut my project productive on it.”

A CTE teacher at Snohomish High School, Matt Johnson, works with a student finishing a piece of a plasma cutter. There is a practical aspect of using a plasma cutter that is comparable to the shopping classes of decades past, and even the aspect of CAD programming can feel a bit old school at times. “I think a lot of the technology students are working with now is built into the apps on their smartphones, so I think while there is a skill that people of this generation have, there is still a lot of learning that goes into the steps and nuances that go into it,” Johnson says. That kids are sitting at a desktop computer as much as they did 10 years ago.” (KCAW/Wolsey)

Tyler Barton is also a senior. It moved from wood to metal when the cutter arrived. But he does not plan to use the skills professionally. He’s heading off to college, and the cutter helps him see what’s possible

“I took this class because I want to become an engineer,” he said. “And I thought this would be an interesting semester, seeing a lot of computer stuff. I could definitely do this as a hobby. I would like to do this as a hobby.”

And my opening note that note is: Wilbur and Orville Wright were a bicycle mechanic, and their hobby was airplanes.

Before I left the CTE building, instructor Mike Vieira told me that working with Matt Johnson was one of my best days of teaching—a chance for his students to see that learning never stops.

“My classes have kind of handed over to him, and I’m just a student besides my students, which I think is fun for me and fun for my students to see me in that role,” Vieira said.

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