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Training wheels

Alec Eichenlaub doesn't know exactly what he wants to do when he grows up. But he knows it will probably involve working with his hands.

"I take things apart, and my dad says it works better than it had before," he says as he uses a wrench to wrestle with a screw on the front wheel of a dusty BMX bike in the Maker's Lab at Jewett Elementary School.

Attending Jewett means Alec has had more experience with wrenches, woodworking and even pottery than perhaps most fourth-graders. And his repertoire is about to increase. He's signed up for a new exploratory class focused exclusively on bike repair and maintenance — under the tutelage of none other than his principal, Tom Rambo.

Rambo says it was the practically empty bike racks lining the west side of his school that inspired him to incorporate bicycles into Jewett's efforts to provide hands-on learning opportunities.

"I have 600 kids who attend this school, and I look at our bike rack in the morning, and there’s two bikes in there," he says. "Maybe one of the reasons is they just don’t know how to fix them or are uncomfortable with them. I wanted to generate a little more excitement around kids riding bikes."

His exploratory course, which launched Friday, will be offered first to students in grades three through five, and then exclusively to fourth-graders. The longtime Southern Oregonian says he's "not able to ask my staff something that I’m not willing to do."

That "something" was shifting these once-weekly learning experiences, which used to be offered as after-school programs, into the regular school day. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers design the courses based on their own interests or skills, and students then get to pick their top three choices. They're assigned based on preference, as space allows.

Rambo says this round of the five-week exploratory classes includes sewing, culinary arts, fishing and videography. His class takes place in part under the watchful eye of Maker's Lab instructor Jasper Stead.

Stead, a former construction worker who took his first shop class in seventh grade, sees himself as a living testament to why the classes being held in the Maker's Lab are important. Without the chance to learn practical hands-on work as a student, he says, "I wouldn't have gone anywhere out of school.

"You can be proud of something you build with your hands," he says, adding that he still owns the coffee and end tables he made in his first year of woodworking. "It shocks me to know schools have gotten rid of so many of these things."

Stead says that elementary students are "really resilient" and pick up skills readily.

That resilience seems evident in Alec's approach as he adjusts his position next to the bike, keeping a foot firmly planted on the handlebars, and tries another wrench. When it's still too large, he searches for another — no complaints, no sighs of frustration.

"What's a smaller size than five-eighths?" Rambo asks him. This process includes many of the different learning experiences he aims to provide in the exploratory classes: creative problem-solving, flexibility in thinking.

His class will also help prepare Jewett fourth-graders for their upcoming spring bicycle field trip, an annual tradition held in June. More than 100 fourth-graders ride together to Hawthorne Park and have lunch. Those who take Rambo's class will be prepared to repair a flat tire or adjust a loose bike chain.

Rambo doesn't accept much credit for spurring the effort to bring hands-on work back into his school: He says Jewett parents have played an integral role, and they've put money where their mouths are. Jewett's PTO has provided around $20,000 for the Maker's Lab alone, he says.

"Parents want their kids to have exciting experiences," he says. "Parents want their kids to want to come to school."

The grin on Alec's face as he puts away the tools seems to display he's caught the spirit.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.

Jewett Elementary School Principal Tom Rambo and Alec Eichenlaub work on a bicycle at the school in Central Point. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]