Illinois WoodLINKS Program is on the 'Mark'

Instructor Mark Smith has helped turn a declining high school industrial technology program into a shining star of the WoodLINKS program.

By J.D. Piland
Mark Smith, industrial technology teacher.

Mark Smith and his industrial technology students at Shiloh High School were having a problem with their spray finishes. They kept spotting and consistently would not dry evenly.

Smith contacted finishing experts, who went through a checklist of possible problems with the spray system. They determined there was water in the lines, which was raising the woodgrain just enough to create spots. A local organization donated $1,500 to install a de-watering system for the air compressor, effectively solving the problem.

"We only knew to do that because of the industry help," Smith says.

This is just one example of how Smith's class at Shiloh High, located in Hume, IL, has grown from his first days teaching wood manufacturing.

When he started in 1996, the program was in severe decline. The wood shop classroom was a mess. The tools, many of which were 40 years old, needed to be repaired and reorganized. Students had little interest in woodworking, not to mention minimal training on the equipment.

Smith says he was determined to revive the program, and, in effect, he has done that and more. Ten years later, Shiloh High's wood program is thriving. With the utmost support from school administrators, he has turned the industrial technology program into one of the best in the WoodLINKS USA program. In a school with a current enrollment of 125 students, 50 participate in Smith's wood technology classes.

Through its school-based enterprise, the program has become so renowned locally that, once or twice a year, the class manufactures a set of cabinets for customers within the community. The charge for the work is equal to the price of materials, plus a $2,000 donation to the program.

In addition, the program has received recognition from two local community colleges. Shiloh High drafted dual-credit agreements with Parkland College in Champaign, IL, and Lakeland College in Mattoon, IL, for Intro to AutoCAD.

Industrial technology students at Shiloh High School crowd around the program's Thermwood CNC router.

Smith says his program would be nothing without all the support it has received from the industry through its affiliation with WoodLINKS USA, a not-for-profit education program aimed at recruiting and training youth woodworkers. Shiloh High has more than 60 official WoodLINKS supporters, many others in the industry, the community-at-large and the school. For the 2005-2006 school year, the program received donations in all amounts - from free trade magazine subscriptions, which the class uses as its textbooks, Smith says, to $3,000 for a pocket hole machine.

Since they acquired a CNC router six years ago, Smith adds they are now graduating students who have been exposed to a complete woodworking program and who are operating at an even higher level technologically. It is gratifying to Smith that every year, one or two of his graduates becomes a part of the industry .

"The pinnacle of the program is that students have gone on into the woodworking industry, but are also college students who are doing their internships in the industry," Smith says. "I had a student last summer do an internship at Andersen Windows. He was part of an engineering team that did research for them. He will do some engineering exchange in Spain and is looking into doing some work for a Spanish woodworking company."

In his 10 years at Shiloh High, Smith estimates he has taught 500 students, joined up with WoodLINKS USA, struck deals with industry leaders to provide donations, training and support, produced cabinetry for the school and community, and even made wooden sunglasses for iWood Ecodesign.

Wood & Wood Products goes one on one with Smith about the importance of his program and industry support.

Wood & Wood Products: Can you tell us some of the key aspects of the woodworking industry you teach to your students that have made the program and the students so successful?

Mark Smith: We teach CAD classes, manufacturing classes, production classes, CAD/CAM classes and outsourcing. Of course, at the beginning, we were working with students who had never been exposed to the skills we are now offering. It was going to take some time for those skills to start showing up in their classwork, time to get used to some of the more modern equipment. It took about four years to show a major difference, at least with the product going out the door, in the form of [skilled woodworking] graduates.

Students of Shiloh High School's woodworking program students present a certificate of appreciation to Dale Silverman,  executive director of the Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Suppliers, for its support of WoodLINKS USA.

The students start to get a real picture of how a business is run by building kitchen cabinets. Purchasing a Thermwood CNC router was a real turning point for us. When we purchased MasterCam software, we had the capacity to cut not only 2-D parts, but also 3-D carvings.

W&WP: Do you consider the program more of a small business, then, or is it still a class?

Smith: It's a mixture. In the freshman class, we talk a lot about the industry; we teach them about wood as a material. We teach them about the latest processes and techniques and they build a project themselves.

I have a manufacturing class where they build their own project. They get to use all the machines, including the Thermwood, if it applies to the project. Once they have acquired a certain skill set, they are eligible to take the other side of the program (the production side), where we build products for companies.

W&WP: How did you link up with WoodLINKS?

Smith: When I first came to Shiloh High School, I met with the school board and the administrators to talk about the future of the Industrial Technology program.

The students and I spent the first year organizing the shop, repairing equipment, ordering new equipment, repairing items for the school and working on classroom projects.

I always knew that getting the industry involved would be the future of my program. I started by attending, along with my wife, Linda, the Industrial Strength Woodworking show in Milwaukee, WI. At the show, I ran into Jerry Finch (woodworking instructor at Fox Valley Community College in Oshkosh, WI) at the WoodLINKS booth. After talking with Jerry for a few minutes, it became obvious that WoodLINKS was the future of programs like mine. I was already trying to do locally what WoodLINKS was doing nationally, minus the industry certification.

I was very excited; I wanted to get involved. This was when we were still pretty small and not thinking as largely as we do now.

I went home thinking about how I could get involved with WoodLINKS when Larry Hilchie, who was the president of WoodLINKS at the time, called me and invited me to attend IWF in Atlanta. Shortly after that we joined WoodLINKS.

W&WP: How involved is the industry with your program? How does that help you in everyday teachings?

Smith: We would never be able to reach the goals we wanted without industry support. The industry has done a couple of things for us. One, it supplies us with up-to-date information about the latest techniques, the latest materials and the latest processes that we can teach in our class. Two, industry representatives have come in and done demos and allowed us to take field trips.

A Shiloh High School student displays his woodworking skills.

The greatest thing the industry has done for us, which was unforeseen, is that companies told the school and the community-at-large that what we are doing is important. That is probably the most important thing they have done. Through the industry's involvement, they have given my students job opportunities, they have opened their eyes to the possibilities in the wood manufacturing industry, and they have allowed my students to meet wood products company presidents, CEOs and technicians they would not normally meet.

When school board members and parents hear someone say, "What you are doing there at that school, that is wonderful. Keep doing that,'' that just makes their year.

W&WP: What does the future hold for programs like Shiloh High's? Not many around the country have thrived quite like yours.

Smith: In the 12 years I have been teaching in this area, I have seen programs cancelled. You hear and read about it, and I see it first hand in travels. That trend is very disheartening. Since I have gotten involved in WoodLINKS, I have been able to see a reversal of the trend.

When I first got involved with WoodLINKS, there were four or five schools involved, nationwide. The last I checked, there were at least 70 and there are probably about 100 now. There are also programs that aren't as committed yet because they are still trying to figure out what they want to do as a program.

In the last few years, I have seen an explosion in the amount of involvement the industry is willing to provide in these types of programs. With the industry getting involved, I don't see anything but positives coming from that, especially when you have heads of industry coming to school board meetings and saying, "We would really like to see you get involved with WoodLINKS, and this is what we are going to help you do."

W&WP: How do we get more students to pursue woodworking careers? Is it up to WoodLINKS and the industry, or is it more at a local, company level?

Smith: I think it is a collaboration on everybody's part. If you have a program and companies are coming to you saying they have jobs or internships for students, or they say to the school board that they are going to donate money for the students to go to IWF, parents notice. Students' parents and school officials just love that, because there is someone outside the school walls saying they would like to help make the educational system better. That's just wonderful.

W&WP: Where do you see programs like yours across the country in the next five to 10 years?

Smith: I think we will see more of them. I have other high schools calling me quite regularly now asking me how we have done what we have because they want to do the same. We will see more industry involvement, because they too are getting rewarded with things like workers right out of college who have an advanced skill set. I think we will see an increase in the internships where industry is helping further prepare these students. Probably thinking and knowing that, if they both find something mutually beneficial, they could have a future worker that will help our program and help their business.

What I hope is that local and national governments notice that what we are doing is productive and working. I hope they get on board and support this as well.

I know Keith Yow [of Cedar Ridge High School's wood program in Hillsborough, NC], who has won a lot of awards for his programs, has had the state government ask to come in and talk to them about what they are doing. I'm sure that has had a positive effect on the program, because when things are going well, people take notice.

W&WP: What do you think it will take for other states, especially those without a large woodworking industry, to reach the level of a program like yours or Cedar Ridge's?

Smith: It might take my whole teaching career to see that happen. As large as our educational system is, it will take time for it to turn around.

I am hoping to see that change in my lifetime, because I love wood manufacturing, I love working with my hands, and I want to see it thrive nationally and locally. I see first hand all the benefits to the students working in the shop and they are not gaining just the ability to build something, but they are also getting life skills and the impressions we are making on them for the good.

At the end of my teaching career, I would like to see that because of what we were doing with WoodLINKS, we altered the course of an area of education that was in decline and is now thriving.


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