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By Dan Rudy 

School program building better builders

 

Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Leif Bosdell operates the Universal-Laser at Wrangell High School Monday morning, making cuts to one side of a future tool crib. Used for making precise cuts in wood, the new device also gives students the opportunity to learn important computer design skills.

Students taking vocational instruction courses at Wrangell Public Schools have been making use of some exciting new pieces of equipment. Under instructor Drew Larrabee, the shop's new Universal Laser, 3D printer and computer numerical control (CNC) router should broaden students' future prospects.

These devices incorporate traditional craftsmanship with computer technology and are effectively setting a new course for industrial production.

The laser-cutter can make precise cuts in wood with little waste material, with remarkable detail. One example of its delicacy is an ornate Aztec calendar carved into a piece of wood about the size of a playing card.

"This is the first year we've had it," said Larrabee. "We're trying to use it as much as possible."

The system is self-venting, and Washington company Laser Marking

Products may also be donating an air-assist attachment for the laser, which would blow away dust and particulate matter that would otherwise blunt the beam's

power.

The Universal Laser system uses a Rhino-CAD program, which allows students to draft designs on the computer. Rhino-CAD is also used to create designs for

the shop's 3D printer, which was acquired in April through a Department of Labor grant program.

The vocational instruction program at Sitka High School was already making

use of a printer through the program, and its retired instructor Randy Hughey helped get Larrabee started with acquiring Wrangell's device, helping him compose the grant application and learn how to use the printer.

Eventually Larrabee intends to have students become proficient with the CNC router, which is larger and more versatile than the Universal Laser. Larrabee explained these new technological skills will be necessary for them to compete in the job market.

For instance, students at the high school have already been producing

aluminum skiffs for two decades. This year Larrabee's classes are using

five tons of aluminum to complete two 18.5-foot boats.

While models for the boats are still being crafted by hand out of graph

paper, students will soon be able to

create them electronically, with sections producible on the plasma cutter.

A large CNC cutter is in

use at Superior Marine, currently

the only one of its kind in Southeast Alaska.

"What took days takes minutes,"

said Don Sorric, the business' owner. "The equipment's a huge help. You can do amazing things with it," from cutting out sections of a boat to tools and parts, even art. The lettering of Superior Marine's business sign was cut using the device.

"It cut those letters out in five

minutes," Sorric said. "We use it here every day."

With these benefits in mind, Larrabee has been encouraging his vocational

students to approach projects

from a more entrepreneurial

perspective.

For one, they've raised funds to purchase materials and some more conventional equipment, like two new saws for the shop.

"We replaced much older saws," he said, noting that these two new

models have superior safety mechanisms and run more smoothly.

The class will be holding another fundraiser, selling some laser- and

hand-crafted items at the school's silent art auction on Dec. 9. Starting

at 6:30 p.m., the auction will

coincide with the school's music presentation.

More notably, this year his class has organized itself into a sort of business, operating under the name Wolf Fabrications. Students have been taking on real jobs for area contractors, such as Superior Marine.

"We're in full support of it," Sorric explained. "They're helping me with some construction projects," doing carpentry work for an office and break room. He hopes in time that students will be able to run the CNC, so he can give some of them real employment after graduating.

"By the time they're done, they'll be able to run the laser, the 3D printer," Larrabee predicted. The push coincides with a broader effort within Alaska's maritime industry to attract local

students to technical programs,

apprenticeships and vocational training.

The Fishing, Seafood and Maritime Initiative (FSMI) has recently been developed by the University of Alaska and other public and private partners with the intention of supporting a strong and sustainable maritime workforce in the state.

Larrabee unveiled the Wolf Fabrication idea to this year's Southeast Conference in September, which was generally well-received by attendees.

"Really we're just tapping into it," said Wrangell's new secondary principal, Colter Barnes.

Student interest has already gone up for the program, and Barnes expressed confidence that as these programs better establish themselves there will be a positive impact on the community.

Wrangell junior Tyler Gillen has had a long-time interest in woodwork and welding, taking shop classes since seventh grade.

"I like doing anything in the shop," he said. For instance, he recently refinished a small table and chairs for Wrangell's Public Health Center as a side project. After he graduates, Gillen said he would like to pursue further instruction at a trade school like WyoTech.

For Sorric, having a home-grown workforce would be a tremendous asset to Wrangell. Shipbuilding and maritime service businesses draw in primarily outside money, and he said having a localized workforce would keep more of those dollars circulating within the community.

"It's going to spur income and economic growth," he said. "I believe that to be important."

 

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