Take a step into Gunnison High School (GHS) and you’re sure to find students hard at work studying trigonometry or Shakespeare. However, a new class offered this year breaks the mold of traditional learning.
Students are being offered the opportunity to make a custom pair of skis.
“On the surface, it seems like a really big idea to tackle,” explained GHS teacher Gregg Smith. “But I think all of them realized this is something they can actually do.”
What started as an engineering course soon evolved into an exploration of custom ski design after Smith learned of students in Bend, Ore., building their own skis and boards.
The idea sold Smith on the spot. In fact, he made the trip to Oregon himself to perfect the process with the goal of bringing back what he learned to students in Gunnison.
His engineering class this year is composed of three students who all jumped at the chance to construct custom skis.
“I came back from Christmas break and on Monday morning Smith asked, ‘Do you want to make skis?’” said sophomore Molly Strickland. “Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’”
Following his foray into custom ski design, Smith knew if such a program were implemented at GHS, students and the teacher alike would have to get creative. GHS did not have — for example — a facility equipped with high-tech machinery to create custom skis. Large-scale production of such recreational equipment usually involves a sealing process in combination with high temperatures to properly form the planks.
The project began with intensive research into what would be needed to form a ski into its proper shape. After picking out types of wood for the skis’ core (students elected for a combination of aspen and poplar), each ski is shaped and subsequently sealed with layers of fiberglass and resin, and fitted with metal edges.
“It’s awesome to start from scratch — knowing nothing about this process, doing all the research and then turning it into something that will work out in the real world,” said Smith.
In order to form a fresh pair of skis, students were required to master several areas of study such as geometry, computer programming and elements of engineering. Despite the long list of necessary knowledge, Smith’s students all agreed that applying what you know goes a long way.
“I was surprised by just how little goes into making a ski,” said Strickland. “I always thought this was big and complicated and it’s really not.”
For Strickland — who hopes to pursue a career in engineering after graduation — the class was a perfect fit. One of the best parts of the class for Strickland was seeing all the ideas her fellow classmates come up with for their design. She also has been skiing since she was about 4 years old.
GHS student Sam Stepanek is currently designing a custom pair of twin-tip skis that will be perfect for both powder and park tricks.
“They have to be durable and flexible which is why I pushed for us to use the wood we have,” said Stepanek. “So they don't break when you’re hitting jumps.”
One of his favorite parts of the class has been designing the graphics for his skis. Stepanek’s graphic includes elements of the Colorado flag and colorful tips to match.
“At the end of the semester, just knowing I developed those skills ... proves to me that I can go out and accomplish anything if I really try,” explained Stepanek.
Student Quentin Richter is making an all-terrain ski with higher tips ideal for powder skiing.
When he’s not playing basketball as a winter sport, he also enjoys hitting the slopes. Richter, more than anything, was intrigued by the build of the device that pressed each ski.
A key element involves two pieces of firefighter hose which are then inflated with an air compressor against a wooden track to allow for shaping of each ski after the resin is poured.
“I liked building what we needed to make the skis. It’s risky and it’s pretty cool,” said Richter.
“Building it from the press was scary because we didn't know what would happen.”
Still, the process of experimentation, learning as you go and making small adjustments along the way is part of what makes learning so exciting.
“It’s awesome,” added Strickland. “It’s a great life experience and I’m so happy I got to be a part of it.”
Smith, too, says the project — which he plans to develop into a course for upper-classmen in the coming year — also invigorated excitement about the unknown.
“It really kick-started my love of learning again,” said Smith.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com.)