All-girls shop class in Montevideo, Minn., offers lessons that can last a lifetime
Brian Albers teaches an all-girls shop class at the Montevideo High School, and every year it's the same thing. It fills up with seniors who signed up with the intent to learn how to change a flat tire, do some welding, repair home plumbing and wiring, and work with wood and metal.
And every year, they acquire along with those skills two things far more important: Independence and confidence.
"You learn to have faith in yourself,'' said Kelsey Quigley as she doused in a bucket of water a red-hot piece of metal she had just welded.
Quigley is among 23 enrolled in this year's Home and Auto Maintenance class. The students frequently spoke to themes of confidence and independence when asked what they value most about the class.
They are also happy to say that they are having a blast. "I thought it would be cool to know some of the things the guys do,'' said Katlyn Duvall, when asked why she enrolled.
She discovered that changing a flat tire is a lot easier than she ever thought. And, she's no longer bamboozled by car talk. At the very least, Duvall said she is confident that she will be a smarter consumer when the time comes to bring her own car to the repair shop, or go shopping for a vehicle of her own.
"Life skills'' is what Albers calls it. He is an instructor in the school's Agribusiness department. Really, the classes offered in this department are about technology skills.
Albers believes that hands-on, technology skills offer young people great career opportunities, whether in agriculture or manufacturing.
It was his motivation several years ago when he convinced the school to offer this elective class only for girls. He was looking for a way to introduce more girls to the opportunities found in technology careers, as well as in the department.
He was not so sure about the idea of offering a gender-based class, but is sold on the idea today. He also leads co-ed classes, and finds that girls can be put at a disadvantage. Many of the boys in shop classes have an advantage in terms of experience in the subject matter; or at least believe they do. Intentionally or not, they tend to intimidate or shove some of the girls out of the way.
None of that seems to happen in the all-girls class, where the dynamics are reversed. Those with the least background in the subject get the most encouragement from their fellow students.
As Albers will point out, they are fast learners. Girls seem to make better welders than boys, he said. They tend to pay far more attention to detail.
Like most of those in the class, Quigley said she was brand new to all of what is taught here when she enrolled. She intends to go away to college and said her father urged her to take this class so that she could manage better on her own.
Olivia Biseo enrolled with her father's encouragement as well. He is a professional auto body repairman. She had never changed a flat tire.
"Now I know what to do in that situation,'' she said. There is a certain confidence and independence that comes with being able to do so, she added.
Her goal is to go to college for nursing.
Albers said the students learn all of the auto maintenance basics, from rotating tires to checking fluid levels. They master basic home repair skills, everything from soldering pipes and working with PVC pipes to knowing how a three-way light switch works -- and how to assemble one.
Welding, varnishing, staining and wood building -- such as using a jig saw -- are all part of the hands-on instruction. They participate in a class project. This year they may build models of train cars for a Lions Club Christmas display.
Since its start, Albers said the class has never lacked for students. The students come from a range of academic abilities and interests, and are diverse in many ways. They come from different circles of friends. Some are into school sports, others are not.
The differences do not seem to matter here, said Albers. He is impressed by how well the students work together and the enthusiasm they show.
He doesn't know whether the class is inspiring more girls to consider careers in technology-based skills, as was his original hope. He has no regrets about introducing them to those opportunities, and the skills they can use for the rest of their lives.