Program shifts gears on typical learning

By Kim Drelich

Blackstone Bicycle Works’ (BBW) youth program is taking an innovative approach to education—teaching students bicycle mechanics alongside academic subjects.

Students in the youth program can earn their own bicycles and helmets after completing about 25 hours of the program, where they learn technical skills and academic subjects such as physics, earth sciences, chemistry, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and language arts.

“We are creating both a safe haven and a bicycle program that has professional language, math, and science education for youth to succeed in business and college,” said BBW director Christopher Wallace, a former teacher.

On October 14, the youth program opened 24 spots for official enrollment, as well as several hundred “just-in-time learning” openings, in which students learn skills such as brake adjustments or fixing a flat, Wallace said.

While the program began more than 20 years ago by teaching 9- to 18-year-old students about bicycles, BBW added an academic component just this year. This is also the first year that BBW moved back into its original home at 6100 South Blackstone Avenue after a fire destroyed the building five years ago.

This summer, the program also developed a business curriculum for students. Fourth-year Sofia Narvaez Gete volunteered at BBW this summer through the University Community Service Center’s Summer Links program to help create the curriculum. Working with her supervisor, GSB alumnus Vincent Afzal, Narvaez Gete researched and used model business programs to devise a way to teach students how the bike shop and other businesses work.

“It is great to think that in the youth program kids are going to be able to learn how to work on bikes and how to run a small business,” Narvaez Gete said. “It’s packing kids with great, fun skills.”

Wallace said the bicycle is a vehicle, both literally and figuratively, to get students involved in academics.

“The students are applying academics to something they enjoy doing,” Wallace said. “They get to be more invested in the academic process. This is engaged learning at its top.”

A first lesson on flat-tire repair, for example, teaches students how to deflate and remove a tire, use tire levers, and understand the chemistry behind tire pressure.

Other lessons teach students about the trigonometry of spokes on a wheel and the size of and space between atoms when working with hydraulics.

Students also learn how to put on and take off a wheel, do a 40-second safety check, abide the rules of riding with traffic, and avoid dangers on the road, such as broken glass. Students can continue to participate in the program after they earn their first bicycle and can work more hours to trade it in for an upgraded one.

In addition to the youth program, BBW offers programs for students and their parents, adult bicycle novices, and professionals in the bicycle industry. Wallace and his staff of about 11 volunteers are currently seeking volunteers to work with a growing number of new students joining the youth program.

In the future, Wallace said he plans to create partnerships with bike shops to give students an opportunity to use their skills outside of their neighborhood.

The program is also working with the University’s Comer Children’s Hospital to create a physical education program, according to Wallace.

BBW is a project of the Chicago-based not-for-profit Experimental Station, whose mission is to “foster innovative cultural, educational, and ecological projects,” said Connie Spreen, treasurer and vice president of Experimental Station.

As part of carrying out its goals, BBW has received funding from local philanthropic organizations such as the Polk Bros. Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust’s Young Leaders Fund. In the shadow of the U of C campus, the program has also received considerable support from U of C organizations, such as its Hospitals, Summer Links Program, and Office of Community Affairs, Spreen said.

Joel Roth, special assistant to the vice president of the Biological Sciences Division and a BBW volunteer, said the program helps students gain skills that will serve them into the future.

“I think that BBW presents an excellent opportunity for kids to master a skill and take ownership of their knowledge,” Roth said.

“Almost every child can relate to a bicycle. After a few months, a motivated student will become an accomplished mechanic,” he said, adding that some students will get jobs as bike mechanics after completing the program and that others will continue bicycling.

“All will retain the skills to work with their hands, use tools, solve problems, and work with others in a non-competitive situation,” Roth said.