Knowledge Is Power
by Lynn Rees Lambert
There’s a new girl in shop class. More than a few, actually, and they’re wielding welding torches and radial arm saws. At Rideau High School, female students from grades 9 to 12 have signed on for a combination credit course/community project.
It’s called Streetcar 696.
Team teachers Mark Bachmann in auto shop and Bob Aucoin in woodworking are the instructors behind the restoration of a 1917 all-electric City of Ottawa streetcar that once transported passengers along the streets of Bytown. The project has a deadline of July 1, 2017, to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. With the country’s trades industry practically begging for participants, this program recognizes the past and the future. While both males and females have signed up for the project, Streetcar 696 has attracted a higher percentage of female students to tech programs compared to other schools, Bob notes. Four years ago when the project was launched, he was surprised to see how deftly the girls took to the world of tools. But he’s not anymore.
“Now, at the beginning of the semester I tease the boys and tell them these girls will have the highest mark in the class.” It’s all in the details, he explains, and the girls—who make up 35 per cent of the class—have them down cold.
The project came about after Bob was contacted by retirees from OC Transpo who were looking for help in restoring the streetcar in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial. Working on community projects is key to Bob’s way of instructing and in the past students have built garden boxes as well as sheds for Ronald McDonald House. But this request was a big one. “I approached Mark about team teaching and we began.”
Since then doors have opened for students, who’ve been offered a hands-on introduction to a wide range of job skills. The program has also busted many stereotypes. “A lot of people think this is strictly a guy’s job, that you have to be strong and big,” Bob suggests. “But that’s just not true.”
“We’ve been pushing for the girls to give it a try,” Mark says. And when they do, girls who haven’t picked up a tool find “they love it.” There’s more to the work than just grind and drill, he adds. “ There’s an artistic component which also draws interest.”
Just ask Melanie Patenaude, a Grade 11 student who took two semesters of woodworking and was invited to check out the streetcar project. Now that she’s on board, there’s no turning back. “When I started woodshop in Grade 9 I thought it seemed interesting,” Melanie explains. Her girlfriends were somewhat skittish about taking the course. “They were saying ‘you could cut your finger off, but it was fine.” And, while she admits to being “kind of scared” about drilling rivets for the first time, she soon got the hang of it.
Her reaction now?
“I love this project,” says Melanie, who turned 17 in February. “I’ve got two classes of woodshop behind me and now I’m working in auto. I’m learning all these new things. It’s more shop skills in my tool belt.”
For Grade 9 student Emily Taylor, restoring a 100-year-old streetcar seemed intriguing. “Plus,” she says, “I thought it would look good on a resume.”
Working with band saws, sanders, drill presses and welding torches doesn’t faze her. “At first I was worried about completing projects. I wanted to make it as close to perfect as I could.” So far, she’s happy with the results. Her tool of choice? The bench grinder, a heavy-duty piece of equipment. No homework required.
However, the restoration itself is adhering to stringent requirements to remain faithful to the original. It is work that entails restoring, fabricating and replicating a piece of transportation history, from welding and designing to technical drawing and woodworking, not to mention covering the basics of brakes and wheels.
“It’s thinking outside the box,” says Mark, while exposing students to careers they hadn’t previously considered. So far, more than 2200 student-hours of sanding, drilling, hammering and sawing have been poured into the project. “It’s been a great success,” he adds, noting students who have worked on the project have enrolled in a variety of trades programs after graduation.
Not all students will go on to skilled trades, of course. Melanie, who is thinking about a career in medicine, figures what she’s learning in these classes can only help in practical terms.
“Knowledge is power.”
Assisting with the work are volunteers, retirees from OC Transpo and the trades industry, who are eager to pass along knowledge to a new generation. Former students also like to return to check out the progress. “It’s their baby, they’re proud of the work they’ve done,” says Mark. That’s why there are plans for a plaque listing all the students who have worked on the project. It will be placed on the streetcar when the paint is dry and the July 1 deadline is met.
“We’ll make it,” Mark states. “We’re right on track. The kids have come through every time.”
Where the streetcar will be unveiled, exactly, remains to be determined. The options are numerous, including TD Place at Lansdowne, the Museum of Science and Technology and the Light Rail Transit system.
The project’s completion will be a source of pride and accomplishment for all who have worked on Streetcar 696.
“I love being a part of this project,” says Melanie. “It’s a part of history. It’s a big thing.” ◆