With Christmas in mind, I posed these questions to Facebook friends Wednesday morning:
When was the last time you received a gift that was handcrafted by the person who gave it to you? Or that you gave one you designed and created with your own hands?
Not a single response. Which makes a person wonder if, after decades of losing manufacturing jobs overseas and seeing a shift away from vocational programs in the schools, do we know how to create and produce anything anymore? Are we capable of designing and building gifts with our hands instead of wearing out our thumbs texting online orders to retailers?
The folks at Ceres High School say yes, they can still invent, design and produce things. They’ll also show you. Students in Chris Van Meter’s manufacturing drafting, manufacturing electricity, and manufacturing industries classes use high-tech gadgetry, including 3-D print technology, to make some of the gifts they’ll hand out during the holidays. Same for Darren Holman’s agricultural mechanics and ag welding classes. But it is not just about learning skills they can use in the garage when they retire and need hobbies. They are learning on the same kind of equipment they will use in manufacturing facilities, including computer-assisted design programs, robotics, electrical engineering, solar panel installation and 3-D printers.
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Wednesday, sophomores Jasmin Dabalos and Sabrina Taylor sat in front of computer screens working on designs: A bracket for Dabalos, a toaster for Taylor.
“The mission is to give them the skills to go from here right into the workplace,” Van Meter said.
The program is so effective that The E.&.J. Gallo Winery partners with the school by offering internships and has hired more than a dozen students full time after graduation in the past three years, Van Meter said.
They don’t teach old ways. Heck, even “The New Yankee Workshop” guys on TV use the most modern power tools. There is no point in teaching antiquated methods, because manufacturers including Gallo and Parker Hannifin in Modesto have state-of-the-art equipment. The Jelly Belly candy plant in Fairfield, which some Ceres students also tour, uses the same Fanuc robotics equipment Ceres students learn to operate at school. The program is so good that it is one of seven “lighthouse” programs in the state, examples for other schools looking to start, improve or restore vocational arts courses.
Most other schools in the region also offer vocational courses. At Ceres, the courses are so popular, Van Meter said, “that I have to kick them out of here at night. I stay here late to allow them to work on their projects. The girls make stuff for their boyfriends – ‘I love you’ stuff. Valentine’s Day is really big.”
The students also create Ceres Bulldogs team and school logo items. They are making plastic Christmas trees that will include 16 LED lights, batteries and motherboards. Some, including 15-year-old sophomore Brayden Bishop, take what they learn in the vocational classes and put it to use for themselves.
“I ride my bike a lot at night,” Bishop said. “I wanted to put lights on it, so I bought LED strips and put them on it so people can see.”
He fashioned a mount for a battery to power them. He also brought in an old lawn mower and is restoring the engine, just to understand the inner workings of the two-stroke engine.
“I’ve cleaned the engine out and put it back together,” he said.
In Holman’s ag tech classes, they use computers and printers to burn emblems into wood for nameplates, signs, etc., all of which make perfect gifts but also motivate the students.
“It’s instant gratification,” the teacher said. “They can design it (on a computer), save it and in six minutes they have a finished product. We teach what is on the cutting edge.”
They learn how to weld with acetylene torches. They learn how to install bathroom fixtures, including tubs, toilets and sinks.
The gift making, though, is a small but functional part of a much more vital program.
“We want to prepare them for living-wage careers,” Assistant Principal Ed Pelfrey said. “We’re looking for careers for them, not just jobs.”