Stories of Innovation: Cycling to the 21st Century Technical College

It is said that “necessity is the mother of all creation.” If that cliché’ holds true, then the world of vocational/technical education should be undergoing a renaissance. Across the nation, technical colleges have been suffering from declines in enrollment, transitioning of the traditional manufacturing employment space, and an identity crisis questioning what a technical college should be in the 21st century.

While this is a national reality, it is even more salient at Minnesota State College Southeast’s Red Wing campus. In this town of almost 17,000 people, manufacturing and engineering have dominated the landscape for generations. This history of creation spans the likes of Red Wing Shoe, Riedell Skate, 3M, MacTech, and Central Research Laboratories (CRL). These companies design, engineer, and manufacture everything from nuclear control rod handling equipment, to industrial safety equipment, to roller skates. Without these hubs of innovation, the economy, prominence, and future of Red Wing would look very different.

Student working on the design of a bike pedal using CAD software
Bicycle Design and Fabrication students with the Minnesota State College Southeast Vice President of Academics, Chad Dull

Recognizing that the above employers cannot be successful without highly skilled technical professionals, it is the duty of the local technical college to recruit, train, and place future machinists, designers, and technicians across the Red Wing region. For without a highly skilled workforce, local industry cannot remain competitive. Without a competitive industry, Red Wing (and beyond) is at risk of the same economic decline which has hit so much America’s heartland.

The mission to help maintain and grow Red Wing’s technological workforce is quite easy to define. However, executing this mission is compromised by the aforementioned enrollment declines and shifting educational and cultural terrain. Minnesota State College Southeast has seen this firsthand. At the Red Wing campus, traditional technical programs have shuttered over the last decade or more. This includes HVAC, Automechanics, Carpentry, and Welding. Thus, this new educational reality parallels an old one from agriculture: how do you feed your family when corn won’t grow? The answer, simply enough, is to find a new crop.

While the above programs were closing, Southeast did notice that other programs were thriving. This includes Guitar Development & Production, Band Instrument Repair, and Violin Repair. While these programs do incorporate traditional technical education curriculum (wood working, computer aided design, prototyping, etc.), they also provided an education which was built around an application, not a specific skill or trade. Here, students who were interested in the application have enrolled from across the planet. Students who have a passion for playing the violin, who may have never pursued a technical education in a wood shop, can be found every day working on sanders, drill presses, and band-saws. While these degrees are not intended to produce graduates for local manufacturing, perhaps the concept of application based education could be applied to meet that very need? Maybe this is how the new crop is chosen?

Looking at Red Wing and the surrounding region, one sees gorgeous tree lined streets, an epic river valley, four seasons of beautiful weather, and bikes trails… trails leading across the state and the region. These trails, anecdotally at least, can be seen as pathways to a multi-billion dollar bicycle industry. Go north, and you’ll find Quality Bike Products (QBP), HED Cycle, Wolf Tooth, and Park Tool. Go southeast, and you’ll find Trek Corporation. In all directions you’ll find custom frame builders, retailers of all sizes (including the renowned Erik’s Bike Shop), and outfitters looking to inspire the next Brent Emery (an Olympic cyclist from neighboring Wisconsin). Looking closer at this application, the bicycle, it is clear that the ball bearings used therein aren’t dissimilar from those in a Riedell skate, that the weld joints aren’t that different from a CRL mechanical arm, and that the industrial design competencies align with the needs of not only Trek, but also Red Wing Shoe. Perhaps this was the convergence of an application based curriculum, which was also compatible with local manufacturing industry, Southeast was looking for.

When this idea was first proposed to leadership in 2017, there were many questions.

  • How much will it cost?
  • How do you know it will work?
  • Where do you put it?
  • Where will you get equipment?
  •  Who will teach it?
  • Why should this be a priority?
  • And, on at least one occasion, a simple instruction of “Stop”

Like many other technical colleges across the nation, the years long enrollment decline made answering these responses very difficult….except for one: “Why should this be a priority?” The answer to that, at least to those crazy enough to pitch the idea, was obvious: If technical colleges couldn’t innovate their way out of the current downturn and adapt to the next generations of industries and students, then they would cease to exist as destinations for those who seek a vocational education. If Einstein’s quote is accurate, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” then the Red Wing campus must surely try something different.

Student working on the design of a bike pedal using CAD software
Student working on the design of a bike pedal using CAD software

The remaining questions would be answered in short order. The Red Wing campus did have adequate space due to recent program closures. Industrial tools were available from recent donations. A brand new welding lab had been built in 2015. Grant money was also available for just such projects. There was an existing CAD lab used for the Guitar program. Furthermore, the college had an exceptional Red Wing welding faculty member (Mr. Mike Ford) with a passion for biking, who was willing to help set the stage for what was to happen next.

With those items addressed, there was still the question of guaranteeing success. While predicting the future is a tough task, working to ensure program viability is achievable. After reaching out to local bicycle manufacturing and distribution corporations, hearing from prospective students, and assessing the success of sister-programs, a strong business case could be made to move ahead on what would become the Bicycle Design & Fabrication AAS degree. This proposal, while contentious, would ultimately prove successful.

Once tentative buy-in was granted from the college. The hard work began. Through close collaboration with industry, we sought to tailor curriculum to meet both the bicycle specific community, as well as skills manufacturing employers across the Upper Mississippi region. We worked to leverage the bicycle industry’s social networking tools to publicize the coming program launch. We asked guest speakers from Hawk Racing, HED Cycle, and QBP to visit campus and chat with prospective students and their parents. We solicited donations and wrote grants, like the one we received from the Minnesota State Educational Innovations. We even recruited Red Wing’s mayor to sit on the advisory committee to help ensure the local community and the college were in sync on such a pivotal program. We believed that this holistic approach – industry, community, students, and college – would not only build a successful program, but one poised to start a new era at the Red Wing campus.

When the program was officially launched, the outpouring of support couldn’t have been conceived months prior. We had students enrolling a year ahead of time to take the general education courses. We received media attention from Germany, South America, and across the United States. We had prospective students contacting us from Columbia, India, and China. We’d been asked to speak at the eBike Conference in Minneapolis. The program looked to be full nearly nine months before the labs’ doors would open……and we hadn’t even found our full-time instructor.

 Bicycle Design and Fabrication Program instructor Chase Spaulding
Bicycle Design and Fabrication Program instructor Chase Spaulding

The final item on our to-do list (and the most important) was finding that right  faculty member. We knew we’d need someone special to compliment Mr. Ford and who would fit the culture of the bicycle community. What we found was Chase Spaulding. While we’d considered applications from around the nation, Chase’s enthusiasm for teaching, his unique background in both mechanical engineering and industrial design, and his passion for cycles (in his case, the motor variety) made him an ideal candidate to lead this evolution at Southeast. With Chase onboard, the table was set.

The Bicycle Design and Fabrication (BDF) labs (specifically, woods/composites, machining, welding, and prototyping) opened in fall semester of 2019. Of the 18 slots available for incoming students, all were filled. While we were still working to get equipment properly calibrated and operational, Chase and Mike were off to the races getting the students hands-on experience from welding to 3D modeling. Unlike more traditional programs, these students weren’t designing abstract items, rather they were thrown into a curriculum requiring designing and prototyping bicycle tools required in adjacent and forthcoming courses. From day one, the projects they worked on were geared to all things bicycle.

Beyond exceeding our enrollment goals, the diversity of the students was unprecedented for such a program. There were students fresh out of high school and students who were retired. They came from Red Wing, California, and Jamaica. These students spanned the experience pool, with many learning as much from each other as they were learning from the faculty. In addition to this breadth of background, these students brought a passion to education that is a faculty member’s dream. Every one of these students was dedicated to learning the skills and mastering the trade.

Moving into 2020, the BDF program is looking to again fill to maximum capacity, with the vast majority of students returning to finish the AAS. Team members have also been asked back to the eBike conference, have been featured on radio interviews from the West Coast, and a podcast from New York. We believe that these students will help form a new bedrock of skilled professionals able to serve our community and keep the economy vibrant and innovative for years to come.

To learn more about this renaissance in technical education, visit our Bicycle Design & Fabrication AAS degree program website.

Questions? Contact Chase Spaulding with program questions or Laura Thomas with enrollment questions.

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