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KIBSD student earns 1st-ever pipe welding cert via distance learning

June 11, 2016
KIBSD student earns 1st-ever pipe welding cert via distance learning
By Noelle H. Lowery

Trevor Phillips is a trailblazer.

The 2016 Akhiok School graduate accomplished something that no other Alaskan rural schools student has ever achieved. Phillips is the first rural schools student in the state to receive a pipe welding certification, and he did so thanks to a virtual welding program.

The only virtual welding program in Alaska, it is a collaboration between Kodiak Island Borough School District’s Rural Schools, AKTEACH and Kodiak High School, and relies on the technology and distance learning capabilities of KIBSD and AKTEACH to reach the interested students in the district’s eight rural schools.

“It is a monster accomplishment,” says Anthony Cavan, the KHS/Rural Schools lead welding teacher. “Pipe certification is one of the highest and most difficult levels of achievement for a welder…You really have to know what you are doing.”

Rural Schools Principal Kendra Bartz echoes this sentiment: “I am proud of our students and the staff that work with them! We are accomplishing great things not done before by using hard work and a little ingenuity.”

Challenge and demand

To be sure, earning a pipe welding certification is no easy feat, but the opportunities for those who do are great — especially in Alaska where the North Slope and the building and maintenance of the Trans-Alaska pipeline keep welders very busy. In fact, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projects demand for welders in the state will grow 18 percent through 2022.

What’s more, according to the American Welding Society, Alaska ranks first in pay for welders. The median hourly wage is close to $34 per hour, and those welders in the top 10 percent make nearly $44 per hour.

Still, the road to earning the certification is long and filled with practice, practice, practice. Welders must earn multiple plate certifications before they can even begin learning the basics of pipe welding. Just ask Phillips, who set his sights on obtaining his pipe certification at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. His quest became a reality after he accomplished five different plate certifications in the fall 2015.

“That is astronomical,” emphasizes Keith Gray, the co-welding teacher at Akhiok School. “Trevor is one of those people that have a natural ability for mechanics and fabrication. He had a real hunger to accomplish (this) goal all year long, and he was determined to be successful.”
Phillips spent the winter and spring studying, learning and practicing for the pipe welding certification. He traveled to KHS in March for the certification test, which included a performance-based test by a Certified Welding Instructor (CWI). The student preforms a weld on which the CWI conducts a stress test. If the weld does not hold, the CWI hands the materials back to the student and wishes them good luck next time. It is pass or fail, and it is intense.

Phillips passed with flying colors, and with his early graduation from high school — he was just a junior — Gray believes employers will be taking notice.

“I believe this year’s accomplishments should make it very clear to anyone wishing to employ a welder/fabricator that Trevor should be taken very seriously,” he says. “I have worked in the construction industry for 30-plus years, and I don’t believe you’ll find very many 17-year-old students that have the natural ability coupled with the drive to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of passing as may tests as Trevor did over this year’s school year.”

A virtual welding program

Still, Phillips' success would not have been possible just five years ago. Despite an active welding program at Kodiak High School at that time, the prospect of opening up similar programs at KIBSD's rural and village schools seemed nearly impossible. Questions of cost, material and equipment availability and finding qualified teachers plagued the idea.

Enter Russ Scotter. During the 2008-2009 school year, the Karluk resident and teacher attended a welding workshop with KHS's Cavan. There, Scotter mentioned that two of his eighth graders — Roy Naughton and Todd Jones — were interested in learning how to weld. Cavan just happened to have an older wire feed welder in his surplus equipment that he was able to send to Karluk, and the following August, he sent two portable stick welders to the village.

"I told the boys I had learned (welding) from my dad on the farm, and if there was a way they could learn, we would find it," Scotter remembers. "In the village, you need to be able fix or repair just about anything. Having these skills are very important." Buttressed with the will, the way became clear as the two Karluk students began their welding with phone calls and emails to Cavan. Then-Director of Rural Schools Phillip Johnson even arranged to fly the students into Kodiak to work one on one with Cavan, and Cavan flew out to Karluk twice and worked with the boys in their own shop.

This pilot program was a success, as Naughton and Jones earned a combined 11 welding certifications before they graduated from high school. In the program, the students have been able to help maintain their school, repair skiffs and build steel shelving, new racks for ATVs, a trailer to carry Santa.
"This was really thinking outside of the box," says Cavan. "And, it was doable. We felt strongly that all students in our district should be able to benefit from this. It was daunting and exciting at the same time."

As the Karluk students showed promise, Rural Schools and KHS personnel dabbled and tweaked the program, and when Johnson took the helm at AKTEACH and distance learning became a staple for KIBSD, an official virtual welding program took shape.

Now on the cusp of its third year, the virtual welding program has a three-pronged approach to teaching. First is technology. Welding students from each rural school meet everyday as a class with Cavan via the online video conferencing service known as BlueJeans. They also have access to Skype discussion groups for question and answer sessions and to give each other feedback.

Second is cooperative teaching. After the students receive their assignments from Cavan, a co-teacher is available at their village to reinforce the lessons and provide leadership, instruction and grades. Third is travel. Cavan travels to the village sites to work in their welding shops with students. Students also have opportunities to come to KHS for hands-on instruction when they travel for sports or come to Kodiak for certification testing.

"We are breaking ground here and pushing the preconceived notions of education farther than anyone thought possible. This is a model that can be successfully implemented anywhere," notes Cavan.

Successful model

In fact, KIBSD and AKTEACH are working with Lower Kuskokwim School District — the state's largest rural school district — to develop a virtual welding program for the LKSD via the AKTEACH DTI grant. Additionally, AKTEACH is collaborating with Kuspuk School District in the development of their welding program. Current plans include Kuspuk students enrolling in KIBSD’s synchronous welding program in the 2016-2017 school year.

The key, according to Gray, is teamwork.

"I’ve heard it said that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same is quite true of creating welders," explains Gray. "None of us can be the 'I' in this rural program...KIBSD supports the welding program completely. We have a student-friendly lead teacher in Kodiak that supplies materials, equipment and daily lessons. The technology KIBSD provides us with allows us to all work together virtually almost as in one big classroom...Because of everyone’s support, structure and guidance, we are able to offer a 'real world' career opportunity for all the students of KIBSD."

Scotter agrees: "Anthony Cavan and Phil Johnson showed how cooperation between a remote teacher and kids who have the interest and desire to achieve can reach success. Added to that equation are remarkable village teachers who are co-teachers with the same desire to see our students succeed and you have the recipe for students to achieve whatever their goal. Trevor had a higher goal, and with Anthony, Phil and Keith Gray, Trevor accomplished what he set out to do. I am so, so proud of the program and those who make it possible and even more of the students who dare to dream of a goal like this."

As this Rural School program has evolved over the years into a virtual program, every year has been packed with milestones and students doing something that has not been done before thanks to the KIBSD team. With Phillips' recent pipe welding certification, the question for the program now is "what's next?".

"If Trevor can reach this big goal, who is the next welder who wants even more?" asks Scotter. "As long as the Rural Schools and the distinct continue to support these programs, we will continue to see students excel — to reach beyond what was once impossible. Our students have learned that anything is possible."