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DC girls explore industrial tech in new shop class
Oct. 24, 2016

By Jennifer Von Ohlen
Staff Writer

COKATO, MN – When envisioning a woodshop, with the high-pitched buzz of blades meeting wood mixed with the scent of sawdust embedding hands and clothes, males are often the ones pictured behind the machines.

This year, at Dassel-Cokato High School, however, female students are the ones operating the shop equipment through a new class called Exploring Industrial Tech – Girls Only.

Derek Levno, an industrial tech teacher at DCHS, launched the class to expose girls to industrial technology and teach them basic shop skills in a comfortable environment.

The idea developed over several years as Levno repeatedly asked the girl basketball players, whom he coaches, why they never took any of his classes.

“The two things I got all the time was (one) ‘I’m scared; it’s scary and dirty,’ and (two) ‘I don’t feel comfortable being the only girl with 20 other guys,’” said Levno. “So, that’s kinda how this whole process got started: I’m going to start this class, we’ll get the boys out of the equation, we’re going to get [the girls] in here, we’re going to show the girls, you know, it isn’t scary, it isn’t dirty, [and] we do some pretty cool stuff.”

Throughout his nine years of teaching, Levno said he typically gets a couple of girls per class, and they usually come in pairs.

“If I get one, they usually end up dropping,” he stated.

In observing the girls who do stick it out, however, Levno noticed they “tend to do better work than [the] guys.” In paying more attention to detail, following directions, and listening “a little bit better,” Levno said his female students tend to produce higher-quality projects.

Wanting to encourage more girls to get into the shop, Levno created a girls-only class to accommodate the students’ needs and the school’s current equipment and facilities.

“I designed this class completely from scratch; like, I’m not basing this off of a model. I haven’t seen this anywhere else,” he stated, estimating there to be about five girls-only industrial tech classes in the state. “Everything is coming from my own head, my own knowledge, my own experience.”

In taking the class, Levno hopes the girls will develop the basic shop skills they need to feel more comfortable joining the boys in other industrial tech classes.

Bethany Wagner, a freshman who always liked the idea of working with wood and was attracted to the class because it was only for girls, said she would “definitely” take another shop class if she got the chance.

“No doubt. I’ve had so much fun,” she stated.

In addition to trying out other classes, Levno also hopes some of the girls will consider going into industrial tech as a career, where there is a significant shortage of women.

“That’s the other part of why I wanted to start this class,” said Levno. “There’s a need, and females tend to do a better job on projects and attention to detail, and doing the job correct and right the first time.

“So, they have the skill-set, there’s a need, so I’m trying to do my best at the high school level to get females interested in this, and if it sparks a fire, and they decide they want to go to a technical school and get a one-year [or] two-year degree, and then come out and get a really good paying job, and a really good job that they’ll have forever, because there’s a shortage, whatever I can do to help that, I’m willing to do.”

Working in the shop

In constructing the class, Levno presented a survey to all the girls within the high school about three years ago, asking if they had any interest in a girls-only shop class, and if so, what aspects of industrial tech they would like to learn.

Based on those responses, Levno designed the class to focus on three areas: drafting on the computer, working in the woodshop, and welding in the metal shop.

The class started with the girls learning a 3D modeling software, known as Inventor, where they virtually design and construct their projects throughout the trimester.

“The reason we started with that is all projects, all parts, everything made, from cellphones to a pencil, a pen . . . starts in that phase, where they actually draw it.”

The first project the girls completed was a keychain they designed and printed on a 3D printer. Following the drafting unit is the woodworking session, where the girls construct a box (which they were in the process of completing at press time).

The final four weeks are spent in the metal shop, where they use a plasma table to cut pieces they later weld together into a project.

Despite not knowing what their final project will be, the girls said it will be “super exciting” to start working with metals.

“I think [all the projects] are really nice and useful. Like my keychain that we made, I love it; I use it all the time,” stated Mackenzie Nowak, a junior. She added, the fact that they get to do some of everything is “the best part of the class.”

Growing in the shop

While the projects are a benefit to taking the course, Levno said it is more important that the girls will leave the class with new life-skills.

He stated, “These hands-on skills, technical thinking, problem solving-type of skills, will help them no matter what they do, whether they go into something in the hands-on field or career, or not.

“If you have some problem-solving skills, you have some hands-on skills – you know, eventually you do own a home, you maybe have a little better idea to fix something, or at least think mechanically enough to [know] ‘I need a hammer and a screwdriver to fix that.’ So whether or not they go into a job that they need these skills or not, they’ll leave here with some, which is awesome.”

As the girls develop those skills, Levno has already seen a growth in his students’ confidence and attributes it to removing the boys from the setting.

“I’m a male, so I can stereotype myself: guys tend to be like know-it-alls, and guys tend to be a little more on the aggressive side. So getting the boys out of the equation, I think it’s helped so the girls are more confident, cause they don’t have a boy staring at them or they don’t have a boy telling them what to do or thinking they should order them around or whatever, cause guys tend to do that,” Levno explained.

Now halfway through the course, senior Spencer Flood said the students who take the girls-only class in the future will overcome their hesitation to work with the boys in the shop, because they will have gotten a taste of it and will instead focus on “how much fun it will be in the shop.”

“And then, you know what you’re doing, too,” added Hope Nevala, a junior. “So you don’t have to be around boys who are looking at you like, ‘yeah, you don’t know what’s going on.’ But now that we’ll have [had] this class, we can go into a shop class with boys and we’ll know what we’re doing,” – including how to handle the machines.

Levno said he witnessed the biggest boost in the girls’ confidence once they moved into the shop for the woodworking unit.

“We’ve been down there for about a week and a half now,” explained Levno. “[The] first couple days a lot of the girls were kinda scared or tentative, which understandably so. My guys are, too. I am at times, too, because the equipment we have is big and scary and dangerous, and if you don’t follow safety rules or you don’t do the right thing, there’s a chance you could get hurt. So, the girls for the first few days, were very hesitant, but now, after being down there for a week and a half, like yesterday (Oct. 12), I didn’t have to help anybody. No one came and got me to help make sure they were safe . . . They know exactly what they should be doing and they’re doing it. So that’s been awesome to see their confidence has just gone through the roof.”

“They still have a healthy respect for the machines and what they can do,” he added, “but I don’t see any girls being afraid of them anymore.”

In the long-run, if DC expands its industrial tech facilities and gets more shop space, Levno hopes to create a girls-only basic car/home maintenance class. The course would teach girls how to check/change their vehicle’s oil, change tires, check tire pressure, put a door back on a hinge, fix a hole in drywall, and other basic skills.

“I have a son, but hopefully someday I’m blessed with a daughter, and I was just trying to think what would I want her to take and what would I want my daughter to know?” stated Levno.

Until then, Levno is “very happy” with how the girls-only shop class is going, and to learn that some of his students have already told their friends to take it.

“I think if you enroll in the class, you won’t have any regrets,” stated Flood. “I don’t think anyone in this class has ever taken a shop class, welding or woods (besides in the middle school), so we’re all at the same level. So it’s not like you’re going to be in a shop with a bunch of guys who’ve had three years of experience and you’re like, ‘oh no, I don’t know how to use this machine.’ You won’t regret it at all.”

“It’s just a good opportunity, honestly,” added Nevala. “It’s life skills.”

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