None of the students in Eric Bredder’s engineering class at Monticello High School seems to care that their workspace smells like gasoline.
All of the students are ensconced in an individual project that they dreamed up and pulled together with little input. That’s just how Bredder wants it.
“I always have projects of my own going on and I want that for the kids here,” he said. “I have incredible support to do that from Albemarle County schools, from the top down.”
The gas smell emanated from a tired push mower that a group of students were working to turn into a go-kart. In the midst of taking the engine out of the mower frame, someone forgot to check whether there was gas in the tank.
Small lessons sometimes precede bigger ones.
“They are going to learn to fix the mower engines and learn to weld this semester,” Bredder said. “That’s the plan for those guys.”
Across the room, senior Jacob Robb and sophomore Jeffrey John were working on a cardboard mockup and a computer-assisted design file of a fully automated chicken house.
A light sensor on the outside of the structure will trigger an electric motor, which in turn will raise and lower a draw bridge to let the chickens out at first light and shut them in when it gets dark.
The idea struck the pair because, John said, he is tired of waking extra early to let his birds out and to refill their food and water.
“I have chickens and it is a pain to get up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to do all that,” John said. He said the design eventually will include automatic feeders made of five-gallon buckets and solar panels to run the sensors and bridge motor.
The classes are part of a wider effort in Albemarle public schools to encourage self-directed lessons and entrepreneurial thinking.
“The idea is to get the kids thinking not just about how to build something, but how that can go out and fit into the world,” Bredder said. “I don’t particularly invest myself in telling a kid, ‘We are going to do this as a business.’ I don’t have a problem with that … but I am interested in education as a social component of the world.”
At this point in the year, the students are still getting familiar with using tools and with Bredder’s open-ended teaching style.
“They aren’t all used to that open-ended thinking,” he said. “So this is still just to break the ice a little bit.”
Bredder came to teaching part of the way through a college math major, after he got sick of the endless stream of theorems and equations and stopped going to class.
Without context or practical application for the problems, the drudgery of classroom work got the better of him. Seeking a renewed focus, he started taking teaching classes in the hopes of bringing hands-on learning to high school students.
Bredder’s own public school experience lacked much in the way of self-directed projects, but his mechanical engineer father encouraged him and his siblings to try projects and, if they failed, analyze what went wrong.
Tenth-grader Jose “Ricky” Antonio has firsthand experience with diagnosing problems with original designs.
Antonio took an entrepreneurship class with Bredder at Albemarle High School this past summer, and designed a conveyor belt he hoped would help teach math to elementary-schoolers.
“It was going to be something that flipped over and one side had an answer and one side had a question,” Antonio said. “When it flipped over, it had an answer. But it took 1,000 tries and we couldn’t get it to work.”
But the experience taught Antonio to use a 3-D printer to build parts he needed for a machine that did not yet exist.
“I did learn how to put in measurements and stuff because I had to make gears and stuff that were super tiny,” he said.
This semester, Antonio, who roams the halls of Monticello High listening to songs by rapper Nas from a speaker on his hip, is working on a large bookcase with two of his friends.
Bredder’s class allows him freedom he doesn’t have in traditional classes, and space to think things through in his own way.
“I love to build and fix stuff, I build and fix stuff for my family and friends and friends’ families,” he said. “I love to learn to fix stuff, and if I don’t know how to do something I’m going to ask Mr. Bredder.”
In the large, open shop space, Antonio is more or less free to keep his tunes on.
“The No. 1 thing is I can use my speaker in class. I love it,” he said. “When I have music beside me I can do almost anything, but when music is not playing I cannot fully comprehend what anyone is saying.”
Keaton Wadzinski, executive director of ReinventEd, a Charlottesville nonprofit that researches the future of education, praised Bredder’s class.
“The class is exemplary of what happens when students are invested in their own education,” Wadzinski said. “They are learning that they can go out in the world and be creators.”