In welding class, students are the teachers

STANWOOD — The air was filled with the shriek of a chop saw cutting though steel, the crackle of sparks and the rumble of an exhaust fan. The room smelled of ozone, smoke and pizza.

It’s a Wednesday evening in the Agricultural Mechanics shop at Stanwood High School, where longtime instructor Darryl Main reigns.

With him were approximately 20 students, most of whom take his “Mechanical Technology in Agriculture” classes during school hours. They come for the chance to do a bit of teaching themselves.

The occasion is an adult-education welding class, now in its fourth year. Adult students (and a couple of junior high school boys) enrolled in the six-week class and are paired up with one of Main’s regular students for hands-on guidance.

The kids don’t get extra credit or anything else but the pizza and the opportunity to pass along what they’d learned in their regular shop classes.

“The thing for me, as an instructor, is that you learn more by teaching something than you do from a book,” Main said.

It’s a sentiment the kids embrace.

“It’s kind of cool to know that other people want us to teach them,” said Athalia Geiger, 17, a junior at Stanwood.

Geiger has welding in her family; her father is a welder and the two have often worked on projects together at home. She wants to enter an apprenticeship program after high school.

“It makes me feel good to know that I can also use my abilities,” she said.

On Wednesday, Geiger was supervising Paul Platis as he practiced welding a piece of pipe to a steel plate with an electric torch.

“You have to get a consistent weld all the way around, which is not easy to do,” Platis explained.

Platis, 68, is taking the class for the second time. He’s a retired visual arts teacher who has a pottery studio and co-owns the Sea Grass Gallery on Camano Island with his wife.

Platis said welding is a skill he’s always wished he’d had. He so enjoyed working with Stanwood students two years ago that he signed up for the class again.

“I taught for 32 years and it’s nice to have that role reversal,” he said.

The gender makeup of Main’s student-teachers is more balanced than would be expected in a trade like welding.

The adult-education class was started four years ago by one of his students, Kaity Hampton, as a senior project. Hampton herself now works professionally as a welder in Seattle, Main said. Last year he had a cheerleader in the welding class, and about one-third of the students on the shop floor Wednesday were girls.

The students, boys and girls, all are enthusiastic, and Main fosters that enthusiasm both among kids who will likely enter the trades after graduation and those who will go to a four-year college.

“Without him it wouldn’t be this interesting,” said Sarah Flake, 17, a senior who has taken Main’s Ag-Mech classes for two years.

Flake, wearing a Future Farmers of America sweatshirt under her overalls, has a 4.0 grade-point average and has already been accepted to Utah State University to study fisheries and aquatic science.

“I was a shy kid,” said Emmett Morrison, 18, a junior who plans to become either a welder or a diesel mechanic after graduation.

“After a while, Main kind of got through to me and now it’s like a second home to me,” he said.

The shop is busy on Wednesday. Main supervises, watching and answering questions, but otherwise letting his students focus on the adult learners and their projects: electric stick welders along one wall of the shop, another one repairing her truck’s tail pipe with a MIG (wire-feed) torch while one of Main’s students watches.

In addition to welding, Main said he tries to imbue his students with a good work ethic as well, and he takes pride in his students who have gone on to work in the trades.

“There are a ton of job opportunities,” Main said, pointing out that six of his students last year were hired just out of high school at the Dakota Creek shipyard in Anacortes.

To have his students pass along their knowledge is even better.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done in my 26 years of teaching,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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