By Linus Parr

On Friday, April 19, Newberry High School trades students went to the Negaunee Millwright Facility in Negaunee for the UP Skills Challenge. The event is organized by the Upper Peninsula Construction Council in Marquette.

The millwright facility is an apprenticeship training school for the unions, and an excellent opportunity for students to see what they offer firsthand. The challenge has two components: a construction side and a welding side, and this year they had a small crane inside the building for the students try out.

It was Newberry’s second year attending the challenge—last year was a steep learning curve for all of us. This year I knew we had to prepare for the one-day event, which I could only take six students to.

Of all the competition rules the students must follow, the hardest one for me is, “No teachers, coaches or mentors are allowed to talk to the students once they start until it ends.” My colleague Candie Labadie, who chaperoned this year, made sure the students got the lunch, which was sponsored by Newberry Subway thanks to Meredith Neumann. We were very grateful! I got mine and left, I was not allowed to be with during lunch.

I have been involved in many school organizations, but I had never seen the students work fully on their own. There’s always a coach, assistant, teacher, someone on the sideline to help when they hit a snag.

When school launches in the fall, I begin observing and taking note of student skill sets in preparation for the challenge. I look at many things, starting with their math abilities. Last year we thought we were ready to build the challenge-specific chicken coop, but when we got to the event, they changed roof pitches and added a bonus build of a bird box onto the coop. For those changes, students had to know how to do the math on their own to make the proper cuts. Miscalculations and bad cuts result in point deductions for the build.

Two weeks before the event, rules and blueprints arrive. Some schools do a mock build; we choose to focus on the blueprints and assigning roles for the build.

Each team must bring their own tools; none are provided. Each school gets a taped-off build space of 15’ x 15’, and all tools and building materials must stay inside that area. Students must wear gloves, safety glasses, and hard hat during the build. After each component is built, it must be inspected by a judge. The judge scores each component, and the scores are a tallied. The top three schools win awards.

This year we split the team between second- and first-year students, a method we will use from now on. Teams have a designated a team leader — the only student who interacts with the judges. I choose Brett Bufford this year. He is one of my seniors and it was his second year at the challenge. As the year progressed, Brett and I talked about various strategies and ways to approach the competition.

In February, I start determining the remaining team members. In addition to Bufford, I selected Luc Blau, Owen Yeadon, Shawn Harrison, Gabe Hamilton, and Beck Stoynoff. The team is divided: five students are the build team, and one student does the electrical segment. Beck wasn’t allowed inside the build space until it was time for electrical installation, and prior to that he was taken to a separate room to work. Beck was on his own for the electrical task.

To prepare the team, I put Owen, Shawn and Gabe, with Luc assisting, on the same shed build project at school. This helped them prep as teammates. I quizzed them often on tool knowledge and communication, because once the competition starts, chaos begins. Nine teams begin working at the same time. The saws start running, hammers are pounding— it gets very loud in the build space. It is easy to get sucked into the pace of other teams, which is when big mistakes are made. We continually talked about slow and work forward throughout the school year.

At the UP Challenge, a barricade of tables keep teachers, coaches and mentors away from the build space. Adults are allowed to watch from upstairs, but not allowed to communicate with their students in any way. I paced like a parent waiting for a child to be born, which is the project.

I want the best for these kids, and I wanted to be out there helping, though I knew I had to let them figure it out. In my head I worried whether we had prepared enough on this or that. I sat in the break room pretending to be working on school documents, but got very little done because I kept looking out the window at the kids.

I didn’t want the students to see that I was nervous, so I talked with other teachers about what they’re doing at their schools. I met with the union people, discussing how we can get them to our schools. In general, I did a lot of networking.

After lunch, the students would have loved to take a nap, but they had only 3 ½ hours to go in the build. During the first hour after lunch, their pace slowed and I wanted to help motivate them. But that’s when they have to find their internal perseverance and push through.

Time goes forward until the last whistle sounds. This year, we were one piece of sheathing from being finished. Though our students did not win or lose the competition, I am very proud of all of them. They learned so much about themselves.

As team leader Brett Bufford recently stated on my Facebook page: “All around we were lucky enough to have these people make things like these possible. Thank you to the adults who supported and made something like this possible!”

I feel very lucky and fortunate to able to provide these opportunities for our young people. I look forward to providing more because, as Brett said, I’ve also had amazing adults in my life to help get me where I am today, and I am grateful to all of them.