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  • Bob LoCicero

It's Harley Time!

Program makes education relevant by linking classroom and motorcycles

Technician Chris Barry works with a student
Technician Chris Barry works with a student

A lecture on the Venturi effect is hardly riveting for high school students - especial ones with bulky troubles on their minds. But if a teacher can link the lecture to motorcycle carburetion, and give students a chance to see the wide intake openings and feel how they narrow in a Harley carburetor: students pay attention.

Harley Time gives students at Community High School of Vermont and the women's Northwest Correctional Facility in Saint Albans the opportunity to work on Harley's while completing their high school requirements. The program links classroom lectures with hands-on work. Community High School is a Department of Corrections program that enables students to earn their high school diploma.

Weekly, the Community High School students attend labs at Green Mountain Harley Davidson. The Saint Albans students have lab at the Correctional facility workshop and the Green Mountain Harley technicians travel to them.

The Community High School students are building a custom Harley from a 1986 Harley Softail. The bike is being completely overhauled and upgraded. The frame has been powder coated burnt orange by Tommy Graves Customs. The engine, forks, triple trees, head light, fenders, tanks and a list of other components will be powder coated and painted in a cream, gold and orange color scheme created by the students.

On the day I visited, students were tagging parts to be sent for powder coat and paint. Keith Champine, Service Technician at Green Mountain Harley and veteran Harley mechanic called out part names -- "where's the bottom triple tree?" -- and students hunted the part from the hundreds on the rack and began the prep process.

"My grandmother wanted to be a Harley mechanic", said Jessie Labelle, 27 as she scrubbed twenty-three year old grease from a part, "but she died at 59". Jessie is in the second year of the program and participating has set her focus on attending Motorcycle Mechanic's Institute - the nation's premier motorcycle mechanics training center - in 2012.

"This has been totally an awesome inspiration to me" said Adam Rheaume, 26 of Swanton who is finishing his final high school credit. Adam said that he hopes to get an internship with Green Mountain Harley after graduation and plans on attending MMI. "I've been working with tools all of my life, but this really pulled it together for me."

"Universally, traditional high school hasn't worked well for these students", said Len Schmidt, an Instructor at Community High School and one of the curriculum developers. He explained that the instructors teach subjects like Boyles Law, converting fractions to decimals, Ohms Law and geometry in a practical, hands-on style.

The students attend the program five hours per week. Two hours are spent in the classroom where they learn math and science and three hours are hands-on working on a motorcycle. They are also instructed in job skills, like how to interview.

Students have learned how use a micrometer, proper soldering technique, electrical repair, wheel building, gear ratios and reseating valves. During the course of the project, the entire motorcycle will be disassembled and rebuilt.

The students are not the only ones learning. Teaching forces instructors - experienced Harley mechanics -- to slow down and think through the processes they are explaining. "I had to spend time on the Internet researching to find the best explanation", said Champine. "Some of these things I really hadn't thought about since I was in MMI".

The instructors are clearly enjoying the program. Chris Barry, GMHD Service Technician, smiles as he challenges Jessie to identify the intake and exhaust ports on a rocker cover. The interaction is warm, but firm and Barry doesn't ask easy questions.

"It's really gratifying to me to teach someone something and then hear that they want to become a motorcycle mechanic", said Champine. "I can't wait to see these kids faces when they push that starter button and hear the bike for the first time."

When the bike is finished in March it will be raffled. The proceeds will support the Moose Foundation. The Moose Foundation helps injured motorcyclists.

At the Women's Correctional facility in Saint Albans, the women are refurbishing a 2005 XL1200 Custom Sportster. Their goal is to paint the bike pink and raffle it during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.

The program is clearly making education relevant to students. "If it was just the bookwork, I wouldn't like that very much," said Joe Bombard. Without the hands-on Harley time "I probably wouldn't be here."

The Beginnings and Support Nikki Marabella, Special Educator for the Community High School of Vermont came up with the idea for the program. "A lot of our students can't get into vocational programs at their regular high schools due to grades or other reasons", said Marabella. "This gives them a chance to get some hands on experience."

Marabella wrote the program grant and coordinated resources with David Pearson, Owner, and Mike Alber, Parts and Service Manager, at Green Mountain Harley Davidson to start the program. A $23,000 an internship grant from Federal Department of Labor funds the program. They also have gotten donations of services from Tommy Graves Customs, Green Mountain Harley and others.

Program organizers would like to see the program grow to state-wide, but there is no guarantee that they will receive funding next year. "We don't know if we'll get another grant," said Marabella. "There are a lot of organizations that apply for these grants and they can't fund them all."

Because it is a State program, they cannot sell the bike and there are limits on how they can solicit funds to run the program.

In the first year of the program all of the students came from Community High School. The program is now in its second year and has 15 students from Community High School and another 15 from the women's Northwest Correctional Facility.

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