Project Bike Tech teaches high school students life skills through bicycle maintenance

By Leonie Sherman
Photos courtesy Bicycle Trip

Student learning to work on a bicycle wheel.

Berri Michel, owner of Bicycle Trip, a full service shop in Santa Cruz, was surprised by how few experienced bike mechanics were available. So she started a bicycle engineering and technology class in local high schools to meet her future workforce needs. Ten years later, Project Bike Tech has reached almost 3,000 young people with a comprehensive curriculum that covers bike maintenance, career preparation and health. 

“When we realized we couldn’t find enough mechanics, we thought, why don’t they have bike tech in schools like they have auto tech?” explains Michel. “The 180-hour curriculum we’ve developed uses the bicycle as a platform to teach environment, health and academics as well.”

The program’s accredited high school classes provide students with the skills to become entry level bike mechanics as well as in-depth career counseling including advice on how to ace a job interview or make a successful resume. In addition to life skills, students learn math, geometry, physics, history and city planning. Even teachers who formerly dreaded math or hard sciences, say they have a renewed passion for these subjects when taught through the practical lens of bicycle maintenance. As abstract concepts become concrete, students’ interests and passions grow. “Our program sparks an interest, showing them that the reason you take geometry is because a bike is a triangle and you need to know math to be able to work on a bike,” says National Director Mercedes Ross.

Project Bike Tech has expanded from a senior year elective to a two-year curriculum. The first year covers assembly of a bike, while the second year deals with basic maintenance and repairs. Eight high schools in California, from Aptos to Folsom, now offer Project Bike Tech classes and they hope to spread even further afield. “We’d like to expand across the country, to have an effect in every state,” says Ross. “To do that we have to start small. We’ve been planting seeds across the country, talking to boards of education in Minnesota, Vermont and Colorado.”

Those states are not chosen at random. Each has a vibrant community of like-minded cyclists. “Bike shops in the area make an enormous difference in the success of the program,” explains Ross. “They supply used bikes, and kids can go there to apprentice. The bike shops also come into the classroom and talk to students, plus they provide a venue for fund raising events. Getting the local bike community involved is critical.”

In many ways, the bike industry acts like an umbrella community in propelling the expansion of Project Bike Tech. Ross, who has 30 years experience working with the major players, provides the perfect bridge between companies and the classroom. “Industry is standing behind this program because they understand that it’s going to benefit them to have more people coming into the workforce with this kind of knowledge,” says Ross. “All those CEOs started by being bike mechanics in a shop,” she adds with a laugh.

But career opportunities aren’t limited to the bike industry. “A graduate of our program might become a bike mechanic, but they’re also acquiring skills to become an auto mechanic. Some kids have gone into the solar field, some kids will move into engineering and design,” explains Ross.

The positive outcomes for students extend beyond the skills they learn in class and increased job opportunities. “For a lot of students this is the first time they feel sort of free in a classroom,” says teacher and curriculum developer Therese Kilpatrick, who’s been working with Project Bike Tech for five years. “They don’t have to sit down and listen to a lecture, they get hands on experience. Through these classes, they come to understand that it happens to be bikes today, but whatever job they pursue they’re going to need to work as a team and be responsible for their time.”

Despite their success and popularity, Project Bike Tech faces challenges familiar to any non-profit.  “Our first challenge is to educate administrators, parents and students about the vast opportunities available to graduates of the program,” says Ross. “We provide an entrée to the outdoor industry, which is growing every year.”

Another big challenge is the decline of occupational programming in schools. “Across the country we’re seeing schools getting rid of hands on classes, moving more towards technology based curriculum,” says Ross with a sigh. “The upside of that is that students are thirsting for hands-on programs like this. There are probably 300 schools that would open a program right now if we had the capacity.”

The biggest challenge in meeting that growing demand is coming up with the cash for tools, bikes and instructors. “Of course funding is our biggest challenge, especially for schools that have a hard time raising money, “ admits Ross. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to come up with grants for schools that can’t afford to open the program.”

Where they have been able to reach low income students in economically depressed areas the benefits are striking. Ross recounts a high school senior telling her that before the class he rode a BMX but never thought about how to fix it or work on it. “Now everyone in his family is riding a bike and he wants to be a bike mechanic,” says Ross. “That kid might have ended up in a gang. We didn’t just change his life, we affected his whole family. Because of Project Bike Tech, they’re all healthier and they’re closer as a family, because they’re all riding bikes together.”

And ultimately Michel, the tireless founder, has realized her goal. Two graduates of Project Bike Tech, Felipe and Jake, work as mechanics at Bicycle Trip.

One of the larger class rooms outfitted with professional tool benches.

Most of the teachers have 20+ years experience.

Students working on brand new bikes made available from Giant Bicycles.