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Skills fest gives students a chance to participate in competitions in different areas, get a look at college

Josh Blommer of Eden Valley lays out a bottom plate for a wall Wednesday in the Carpentry Department at Ridgewater College in Willmar. Blommer was participating in a high school skills program. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Ridgewater College was buzzing with activity Thursday morning, as high school students showed off their skills in welding, photography and building computers.

The 30th annual Ridgewater College Skills Fest sent kids to all corners of the Willmar campus. Nearly 500 sophomores, juniors and seniors from 27 school districts across western and central Minnesota attended the event.

The skills fest gave students a chance to participate in competitions in 21 different areas and to get a look at the college and what it has to offer.

The competitions included welding, photography, agriculture, computer skills, auto body and mechanics, electrical, cosmetology, veterinary technology, accounting and office skills. Top three finishers in each category received prizes donated by area businesses, and some winners could be eligible for scholarships if they attend Ridgewater.

In photography, students entered photos in three categories — nature, student life and digital imaging. Second-year photography students judge the students’ work for composition, exposure, lighting and creativity.

Several of the students were making their second trip to the skills fest. Two of them, Erika Hart and Emily Sommerfeld, seniors from Litchfield, plan to attend Ridgewater to study photography.

“It’s fun to talk to the students in the program now, to see what they think,” Erika said. Emily said she also enjoys seeing the work of the other students.

Nicole Strobel, a senior from Chokio-Alberta, said she has enjoyed the photography competition, too. She’s attending Minnesota State University Moorhead with plans to become a photojournalist.

Ashley Krier, a junior from Chokio-Alberta, said she liked seeing how the college does things, and they always leave with ideas for how to improve their work.

In years past, students in the photography competition would bring negatives, and they would use the college darkrooms to make prints, said instructor Keith Grothem. Now, they bring prints, and eventually they’ll probably submit their photos electronically, he said.

“They get a chance for somebody to look at their work,” Grothem said, and that’s probably the best part of the competition for them.

The welding competition had about 80 students competing in four categories. Instructor Cody Sarsland said many students are familiar with welding from high school classes, but not all of them are. The staff at Ridgewater tries to make the students’ visit a positive experience, he said.

Some area businesses had set up displays in the welding area.

Tayler Sing, manufacturing manager at Relco, said the company needs experienced welders and is willing to train them in stainless steel welding skills.

“We’re out here for exposure, and to talk to kids interested in a career,” Sing said. The international corporation needs welders at its Willmar plant or on traveling crews.

Tim Zemke, a junior from Cambridge-Isanti, said he was glad he had participated in the welding competition. “It’s a good trade to have,” he said. “There’s always a demand for welders.”

Another welder from Cambridge-Isanti was senior Catey Annunziata. She said she took a welding class because many relatives are welders.

The boys in her school told her that girls can’t weld, she said. Her response has been, “Watch me.”

She has enjoyed her classes, but she may not go into the field. She’s more interested in veterinary technology and also in pursuing her interest in art, she said. She looked thoughtful, though, when told that welders probably make more money.

In the computer technology area, pairs of high school students were defining the components of desktop computers before they took them apart and put them back together. Instructor Jeff Polman said he had made sure that all the computers worked at the beginning, and students would pass if the computer still worked when they were put back together.

“It’s fun,” he said of what the kids gain from the day. “They get to learn about the program, and it’s a competition.”

High school faculty members who made the trip said they thought the experience helps students build confidence and it exposes them to career fields they might be interest in pursuing.

“Sometimes they’re trying things they never tried before,” said Becky Draper, a Chokio-Alberta teacher.

Reed Adrian, an industrial technology teacher from Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, said his students sometimes find a new focus on their futures. “They get a first-hand look at what they’re going to do,” he said.

Sally Kerfeld of Ridgewater said the skills fest involves many people on campus and is “a well-oiled machine” after so many years. She said she and administrative assistant Deb Bomstad will probably begin working on next year’s event next week.

Their concern in many years is that school funding could fall to the point that some districts cancel the trip. This year, all but one school district made the trip, despite bad roads and visibility.

“Tech education is really in the limelight right now,” she said. “If high schools are not able to have some of these classes, we need to show them what’s out there.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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