By George Soltes
Mason green, now 16 years old, began coming to Alchemy Industrial Arts (AIA) two years ago when he decided he wanted to build a mini bike.
His parents, a symphony musician and a photographer, were supportive but had no clue how to help him. After friends pointed them to Bainbridge’s AIA, Mason not only built his mini-bike, he also constructed a dirt bike trail on the property, learned welding and metal work, and began assisting with summer youth camps.
An innovative educational nonprofit, AIA introduces youth many like Mason and adults to trade skills such as blacksmithing, welding, kinetics and electronics.
Its teaching style is particularly clicking with a growing number of island youth in ways conventional classrooms have not. The target age range for youth classes is 10 to 17, but some are for kids as young as 7 years old.
AIA is the brainchild of Jeremy Loerch, who, after many years as an elementary and middle school teacher in Seattle, relocated his young family to Bainbridge Island in 2008 because he didn’t want his children “to grow up on a addition to working as a stay at home dad, he started Monkey Wrench Fabrications, a custom metalworking studio which he continues to operate.
But Loerch’s passion to teach never disappeared nor the knowledge that not all kids learn best in a traditional academic setting inspiring him to start AIA three years ago.
With his own hands he built the steel beam facility, made partially from shipping containers, on three acres of wooded property off Wardwell Avenue.
“I understand kids that I call kinesthetic learners,” said Loerch. “They learn by doing with their hands through a process, rather than sitting at a desk or reading a book. It’s a great place for those kids who need to be destructive to do it in a positive manner. We basically are smashing material to create something from it.”
The teaching strategy at AIA, which Loerch refers to as projectbased learning, is to provide students with basic skills, then give them agency over their creative process, allowing them to learn in an open-ended way.
He is perfectly happy to have students fail during this process, even multiple times, “because there’s more learning through failure than there is if they immediately get it.”
Students are also encouraged to learn from their peers. “First, you try, and if you fail you ask a friend,” Loerch tells them. “Because friends know just as much as I do and you do and they might have a great idea. And if that doesn’t work, then you get me and the three of us sit down and figure it out together.”
Loerch is assisted by welded-sculpture instructors Ray Hammar and Erin Munter. Munter’s focus is on teaching fabrication and welding to girls and women. The special attention to females is deliberate.
Loerch emphasizes to his female students that, while they may be entering a traditionally male-dominated realm, “You don’t let a man or a boy dictate what you can or can’t do. This is a shop. You belong here. high paying skilled jobs such as welders, electricians, plumbers and master craftspeople that went unfilled last year in the United States “because we didn’t have qualified people to fill them.” Skills USA estimates that the U.S. will need 10 million new skilled workers by the year 2020. And that’s all that you need to remember.”
Nora Wilson, a 10th grader at BHS,is a fixture at AIA on Thursday afternoons where she works on her own projects. She hopes to create enough pieces to put a show together before graduation and recently received her first paid commission: a welded steel lobster.
Although some of her friends think what she does is “crazy,” she nevertheless encourages girls to give it a try. Learning trade skills is not just a postivie experience for many island youth.
Loerch noted that almost 700,000 Future plans for AIA include a clay animation class and incorporation of a 3-D printer. Whatever medium they choose, students will continue to tackle each project guided by their own creativity and imagination and will walk back out into the world tired, dirty and perhaps a bit more confident than when they started.
Through peer learning, problem solving and dealing with failure, AIA students gain confidence.