Building Blocks: VT Tech gets students excited about applied sciences through ski and snowboard building

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Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vt. may sit among farm fields, but it is a hub of learning for students looking to gain skills in the applied sciences such as Mechanical Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Business Technology and Management. The President of the college, Dan Smith, is always looking for innovative ways to get students engaged in their learning, and recently VT Tech acquired a ski and snowboard press and is incorporating ski and snowboard building into the applied learning process for students interested in engineering, along with members of the campus Ski and Snowboard Club. The campus also boasts a rope tow, lights and a set of features that have been built and laid out by the students.

[This article was originally published on the Backcountry Magazine website.]

Integrating students into the workforce is a primary goal for VT Tech, and Smith sees the ski and snowboard building lab experience as a way to inspire graduates who are invested in the surrounding Vermont recreational landscape. We caught up with Smith to learn more about the origin of the concept and how he sees it evolving in the future.

Here is what Smith had to say.

Backcountry Magazine: How does offering the ski-building opportunity reflect the ethos of Vermont Tech?

Dan Smith: Vermont Tech is a college that prides itself on the applied technical education we deliver. We teach students how to do stuff in an environment where they can apply their learning on projects that are related to the fields they are studying. So ski building has elements of mechanical engineering; it is an applied science. We are also deeply connected to the communities and the State of Vermont, so skiing is in our background. We have a 200 vertical foot rope tow on campus in Randolph Center. It has been a big part of our culture for a long time.

The key for us is that it offers a way to get students excited about engineering and applied science by allowing them to relate it to something that is relevant, and [that] can be skiing and snowboarding for some people.

BCM: How did the ski building opportunity come to be?

DS: Our mechanical engineering faculty approached me, having identified a piece of ski equipment—a pneumatic ski press—that was affordable. They presented a really good concept for how this would connect students to their learning via a pretty cool project for students to work on [building skis and snowboards]. There was the option to turn it into a lab and connect it to our curriculum. They made a really strong case for it, but it didn’t hurt that I love skiing, and it has been a big part of my life for a long time. It seemed highly relevant to the president [chuckles].

It also gives us the opportunity to potentially offer some workshops, and we are hoping to do so over the course of the fall. Our students in the ski and snowboard club and the mechanical engineering faculty are exploring a series of workshops over the fall where people can come from anywhere and learn how to make skis and snowboards and use the equipment they build.

BCM: How many students take this information elsewhere after they graduate from VT Tech?DS: This past year was the first year we actively had students producing their own skis and snowboards. And we ran it all through our ski and snowboard club. So we had students who left school with a pair of skis in addition their diploma. I know they have reached out to various ski companies and they are interested in applying their knowledge within the industry. I do think there is a workforce component—we have had students go and visit the Burton facility in Burlington. It is definitely opening people’s eyes to the opportunity of being in the industry for the duration of their careers.

BCM: What role has Jason Levinthal played in the course?

DS: Jason Levinthal, a Vermonter and owner of J Skis (and founder of Line Skis), came in and gave an excellent presentation to our students about his experience as an entrepreneur in the ski industry. Our students were incredibly fired up and he took a tour of our lab where we have our ski press. He talked about some of the mechanics and elements that he incorporates into his ski designs.

BCM: How have VT Tech students helped to further the program?

DS: Our students are go-getters and they are entrepreneurial in their own right. One of the pieces of ski building equipment that we didn’t have was a CNC Router for cutting cores. And so these students actually designed and built a CNC Router for us for their senior engineering lab.

BCM: How does your location in Randolph influence the programming?

DS: We have seen a big investment from the State of Vermont in support of our mechanical engineering and manufacturing labs, so we have been making a bunch of improvements to aid student learning. We are carving out specific space to support the ski-building environment.

We used the college’s timber equipment and portable timber mill to rip cores last fall, so we used wood that was culled on campus in Randolph Center to build the cores that were built in our ski press. It was pretty much entirely done on site.

BCM: Who gets to attend the ski building classes?

DS: Our students spend a lot of of their own time in the ski building lab, particularly students in the ski and snowboard club. The next phase will be the idea of coordinating workshops for people who are not currently affiliated with the college to come spend a couple of days and with support and instruction to make skis and snowboards.

BCM: Do you see this program growing for the enrolled students?

DS: If you think about it, one of the fastest growing areas in the ski industry is backcountry skiing and touring, so you see people taking skiing into their own hands and their own feet, hiking for turns, accessing stuff on their own. I think part of that ethos will evolve into more and more people wanting to be able to take charge of their own equipment and making it themselves—understanding what goes into the manufacturing of their ski equipment. It will help draw people to the college and it will help draw people to the program. There is such demand for people with applied engineering skills that anything we can do to make that learning more appealing and more engaging for young people is going to help us as a state in the long term. I think that as a college, we are positioning ourselves to have an even greater economic impact on the workforce in Vermont and to have some fun while doing it.

Read more about students making skis in this feature story.