RED WING -- When officials at Minnesota State College Southeast opened the doors on the first bicycle design and fabrication program in the nation this fall, they were hoping to find a cohort of enthusiastic students to fill the classes and launch the program. That’s what they got.

“As a new program, we couldn’t ask for anything better,” said Dawn Lubahn, interim dean of the business, trade and technology department. “We have 17 students in the program, and it is coming out of the gate really strong.”

Chase Spaulding (yellow hat) helps two of his students in the Bike Design and Fabrication Program at Minnesota State College Southeast as they use the SolidWorks program on Nov. 7, 2019.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Chase Spaulding (yellow hat) helps two of his students in the Bike Design and Fabrication Program at Minnesota State College Southeast as they use the SolidWorks program on Nov. 7, 2019. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

The college hired two instructors, Chase Spaulding and Mike Ford. Spaulding has a master’s degree in industrial design from North Carolina State University and is in charge of the design classes, including work with SolidWorks, a computer design program. Ford is a retired ironworker from Red Wing with 44 years of experience in metal fabrication and welding; he teaches part time.

“Chase has a lot of interesting pieces of industry experience,” Lubahn said. “He has a unique skill set. He is really fun and brings that to the program.”

His talents are not lost on his students.

“This program is amazing,” said Nathan Schmidt, a 2017 graduate of Red Wing High School. “Chase is doing a great job of leading it. I am overall very happy with the way it is going.”

Charlie Wright, a retired Delta airline pilot who lives in Stockholm, Wis., said, “They were lucky to find Chase. His background and his capabilities are rare. They are going to have to hire somebody else next year. Chase can’t do it all.”

The courses are designed to give students a broad background in the skills they would need for bicycle fabrication, but the overall goals go beyond that.

Bike Fabrication Welding Class

“They are doing something hands-on,” Lubahn said. “You have engineering, you have design, you have fabrication, you have experience on SolidWorks. It is all these life skills embedded into that. It is a really transferable skill set.”

Spaulding said that the bike industry is one in which employees often must take on many different tasks.

“We are not making engineers. We are not making welders,” he said. “We are making people that know how to do all of those things and are competent in them. The industry needs people who can wear multiple hats.”

This approach to the program also allows students to have input into the work they choose to do in the classes and where they plan to take the experiences in their futures.

“Because it is all based around the bike, and because it is made of so many different fields, the students get to have a say in it,” Spaulding said. “I am not going to have 17 carbon copies walking out the door.”

Ford, who teaches the welding classes, said, “The students are the best part. They show up, they listen, and they deliver. Each one of us has fun and when the fun stops, we’ll collectively change that.”

After Schmidt graduated from Red Wing High School, he went to Whitefish, Mont,m where he raced mountain bikes and worked in a bike shop.

“When I heard this program was coming out and it was in my hometown, I had to jump on it and get involved,” he said. “I want to get into the bicycle manufacturing industry, whether it be in my own company or working for other people.”

Holding a piece of metal welded by a student, Mike Ford (center) answers questions about how to improve the weld.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Holding a piece of metal welded by a student, Mike Ford (center) answers questions about how to improve the weld. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Ari Tapper from Deep Haven, Minn., calls himself an avid cyclist. He raced bicycles in high school and at his first college, yet he is one of the students who will take the skills from the bicycle fabrication program and apply them in another field.

“My end goal is aerospace,” Tapper said. “What I am really trying to get close to is asteroid exploration mining. I’ve always really liked adventures, going farther, going faster, and doing everything better. That’s kind of the next spot.”

Signing up to be part of a new program, a program with no previous students or graduates, might be concerning to many students. Tapper took a different view.

“Part of me wondered if this was a good idea,” he said, “but another part of me said I’m leaving my mark on something. Sign me up.”

Wright, after leaving his career with the airlines, saw this program as an opportunity.

“I am interested in things mechanical,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of tools. Tools are easy to buy, but they are not easy to make do things. That’s what I am interested in.”

He has also found being a non-traditional student to be an interesting experience.

“Hanging around with a bunch of young guys has renewed my faith in youth. These kids are sharp. I wish I was that sharp.”

Wright said he expects many other colleges will be watching the bicycle fabrication program and its results.

“There are a lot of educational institutions that are going to look at this and think that this is probably a good way to do this, because these kids are going to be really hireable,” he said. “This might be the first program like this, but it won’t be the last.”