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MN State Southeast launches bicycle fabrication degree

Dr. Travis Thul has helped launch the nation's first Bicycle Design and Fabrication degree program at Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 6
Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 6
Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 6
Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 6
Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 6
Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia6 / 6

If teachers want students to work hard, be engaged, and learn well, those teachers encourage students to work on something they care about, something that fits their passions.

That's exactly what Dr. Travis Thul, dean of Trade and Technology, hopes to do with the new Bicycle Design and Fabrication Program at Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing.

The idea to start the program came from another program that already exists at the college - the Guitar Repair and Building Program.

Thul said they wanted to duplicate the success of that program which has students on waiting lists for classes. They looked for an idea that had "tangible, emotional appeal while also encompassing the core competencies of mass manufacturing. We got to thinking, and the bicycle is this unique concept that holds people's heartstrings."

Most people have grown up with bicycles and have many memories of the fun they had with bicycles, Thul noted. Combine that with a "bicycle-centered culture" in Red Wing with the trails at Memorial Park and the Cannon Valley Trail, and the new bicycle program fits right in.

Beyond bicycles

Minnesota and Wisconsin have several bicycle companies which feature "$2 billion per year or more in the bicycle industry from companies all within a reasonable distance for people to go and pursue jobs."

However, there is a bigger picture for Thul, who holds a doctorate of engineering. "The skills inherent in learning how to build and design these bicycles are skills that can be used at Red Wing Shoes, Fastenal, Valley Craft, and many others."

The skills can be transferred because "a drivetrain is a drivetrain. Gearing is gearing. Welding is welding," he explained. "So we can take this program that isn't found anywhere in the country, or on earth as far as I can tell, draw students from everywhere, and make Red Wing a destination education center for this specific application, while still serving our industrial base."

The program has been approved by the college. Beginning in January, students could enroll in general education classes such as algebra and physics in the 60-credit program which leads to a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree.

"This is going to be very robust," Thul said. "It's going to be one of the most rigorous programs that we have."

STEM

As the college examined adding the program, faculty members discussed the need for students to understand statistics, algebra, physics, rolling resistance and other design and manufacturing concepts.

"The force distribution on one bicycle frame is going to be different than the force distribution on another frame," Thul said. "It's very important that the core mathematics and physics are taken seriously."

Laboratory classes with titles such as 3D Prototyping, Physics for Bikes, Safety and PPE, Machining for Bikes, and others are slated to start in the fall of 2019. One of Thul's favorites is a class on the history of the bicycle.

The first graduates are expected in the spring of 2021.

Faculty members are mostly from the local area and have prior work experience in manufacturing, welding, fabricating, and prototyping.

Arts of engineering

On the wall outside the rooms where the laboratory classes will be held, Thul has placed several posters illustrating bicycle patent applications. He hopes students will pause and look at the drawings and examine what they contain.

"I think this gets to the art and the engineering of making a product," he said. "You can walk by here and see gearing ratios, metalwork, frames, pulley systems used for braking. You can really see the embodiment of what we want these people to do."

One conversation within the new program has been designing bicycles for handicapped people. Thul hopes some students will want to take on the challenge of designing and building adaptable bicycles.

Initial interest in the bicycle program has been good, and Thul hopes it grows as fast as the guitar program did. With some of the classes in the guitar program wait-listed, he hopes the same happens for the bicycle program. "I would love to turn people away," he said.

International interest

Thul hopes to market the bicycle program in the Twin Cities. Students might be interested in driving to Red Wing for the program. "That's another reason why this campus is perfect, because this isn't competing with any other program," he said.

Thul, who served in the Coast Guard for 10 years, recently received a call from the CEO of a company in Montreal, Quebec, wanting to hire graduates of the program. Even though Thul had to tell the CEO there weren't any graduates yet, the call makes Thul believe the program is heading in the right direction and will eventually provide those graduates.

"Maybe we can find a way to get young people into the advanced manufacturing career fields while still serving their passion and meeting everybody in a way that is a mutual win," he said.

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

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