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June 7, 2011 > Woodworking thrives at Centerville Junior High

Woodworking thrives at Centerville Junior High

By Miriam G. Mazliach

A wonderful woodsy aroma permeates the air upon entering the large classroom. Students are busily working, involved and engrossed in various projects. Equipment hums as the activity is presided over by their attentive woodshop teacher, Steven Olson. It's business as usual, in Woodworking Class at Centerville Junior High School in Fremont.

Many secondary schools, not only Hopkins, Mission, Irvington and Washington in Fremont, but those at surrounding school districts in New Haven and Hayward, to name a few, have closed woodshops over the past few years due to budgetary concerns, retirement of long-time shop teachers or in favor of subjects considered 'more academic.' But, Centerville's program is stronger than ever due to the efforts of its dedicated teacher and supportive school community.

Olson, who had been teaching art for five years at the school, jumped at the opportunity to take on the woodworking classes when Jim Franchi retired in 2008 after 40 years as the shop teacher. Olson is now completing his third year in that position.

Last year, two of Olson's students entered projects in the California State and Alameda County Fairs. Khanh Dang won First Place at the state fair for her chaise lounge (chair) as well as an award for Best of Show and was presented with $250. Rachel Palmon won Second Place at the state fair for her end tables and a First Place at the Alameda County Fair.

Always looking for new ways to improve student learning, this year Olson required his Woodworking 2 (Advanced) students to learn SketchUp, a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program. By using it, they can envision a better design for whatever they are creating, through a process called 3D rendering. Another plus is that the program can be downloaded for free so most students are able to work on their designs at home. Additionally, Olson began using laptops in his classroom and installed the SketchUp software on school library computers. Olson says, "Learning SketchUp is design in the 21st century and useful for the future."

Olson recognizes that the school's woodworking program has value as an introduction to a possible career. In his Woodworking 1 class, students learn to use hand tools correctly. They can move on to the jigsaw, sanders, and drill press but must pass a test to use the router or lathe. He reviews the safety regime many times. Students have to earn 100 percent on the tests for each piece of equipment in order to use them.

The band saw, joiner, or table saw can only be used by the teacher or advanced Woodworking 2 students, with teacher assistance at all times. "Students definitely enjoy the shop class and it creates a lot of positive experiences," says Olson.

Growing up, Olson recalled that his brother took woodworking which made him realize that he also liked creating things and making anything he could. "I want to build a house next," Olson says. "I want to teach my students an 'I can' attitude rather than 'I can't.' When I was 14, I thought my shop teacher had the greatest life by teaching this stuff."

To follow his own dream, Olson pursued an Industrial Arts degree at SJSU (San Jose State University). However, he soon discovered that it focused more on manufacturing, not woodworking and switched to the Art Department that had a better woodshop, available to use all day, so he received his degree in Art. "I found that I'm not only a woodmaker, but a sculptor and a ceramicist. I enjoy using my hands."

Olson encourages his students to try challenging projects. "This is not your grandpa or grandma's woodshop class," he adds. "I want them to learn how to work well in life and to solve problems. It taught me to figure things out for myself."

To ensure the quality of shop projects, Olson prefers to purchase wood for his classes from MacBeath Hardwood in Berkeley. He gets oak, maple, walnut, cherry and some exotic woods like padauk and purple heart. Plywood is also used for some projects. He goes to pick up the wood himself as they give the school a good price, but don't deliver. "The class parents are generous and usually chip in to help defer the cost of the wood and materials," says Olson.

Principal of Centerville Junior High, Sherry Strausbaugh is very supportive of the woodworking program. Strausbaugh states, "I think it's a great program and to have students compete and win at the state fair is an accomplishment. The items the kids are producing are amazing. They're really proud of what they've created in woodshop and even come in at lunchtime to work and be successful." Strausbaugh adds, "Steve definitely goes above and beyond not only for the students, but the school, by painting murals and building shelving units, among others."

Olson has been thanked many times by appreciative staff members and parents, for going the extra mile to help the school out in a myriad of ways, including fundraising. He recently held a sale of remainder project items from previous semesters, to raise funds for the department and school. He included some of his own pottery and even tie-dyed shirts. For his efforts, this year Olson received a special award from the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) in appreciation of "extra service" to the school.

As if that wasn't enough, Olson has made arrangements with his principal and Adult Education to offer after-school classes for high school students interested in continuing to learn with him. Olson also teaches a Ceramics class on Wednesday evenings through Castro Valley HARD (Hayward Area Recreation and Park District).

"I'm passionate and hardworking about what I do," says Olson. "It's a release and being able to work with your hands to make things gives you a sense of pride and it's yours. Maybe in the future this is a skill or interest you can keep and maintain for a lifetime. We all need things made out of wood."

It is clearly evident that Olson believes very much in what he is doing when he says, "I really feel that I need to inspire kids. I only have them here for two years."

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