Like high school auto shop, but for bicycles, this experiential program is helping create a new generation of bike advocates nationwide.
More than a decade ago, Berri Michel, co-owner of the Bike Trip bike shop in Santa Cruz, California, had an epiphany. Michel, who was always on the hunt for new bike mechanics, took note of how the car industry spearheaded the creation of high school auto shop programs and realized she could do something similar for bikes.
In 2008, Michel founded Project Bike Tech to provide high school students with an education in bicycle mechanics. Over the years, the program has evolved to include modules on resume writing, interview techniques, inventory management, POS systems, sales and teamwork skills. In an educational setting, bicycles become a conduit for teaching students everything from geometry to city planning, healthy habits to the importance of sustainable transportation. The curriculum, written by teachers for the 17-year-old brain, results in two industry-endorsed certificates for graduates.
“Students who graduate are great basic bicycle mechanics and excellent employees for any retail job,” said Project Bike Tech Executive Director Mercedes Ross. “They learn everything from why they should be well dressed when they come to work to why they should get there on time.”
Currently, Project Bike Tech is in 18 high schools across seven states, with plans to double the number of programs and expand to four more states by the end of 2021. Other than a handful of well-off private schools, the majority of Project Bike Tech’s classrooms are in historically underserved communities. Many also have large Hispanic populations, which is why the organization plans on translating the curriculum into Spanish.
Lorenzo Holquin, who’s taught in Project Bike Tech classrooms for five years, already teaches in Spanish on occasion. “My student population is about 99 to 100 percent Mexican,” said Holquin, who teaches at Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville, California, and is himself Mexican and Indigenous. “I teach my kids about bike culture and how a lot of it started in Mexico with lowrider bikes," said Holquin, who believes the program is just as much about getting students to take pride in who they are as it is about learning bike mechanic skills.
“A lot of these kids are mechanically inclined and they don’t just want to sit there and write a bunch of papers,” said Holquin. “I tell them, ‘Papers are important, too, but I understand what you’re saying.” In the Project Bike Tech classroom, bikes might capture a student’s attention but they are often the conduit for imparting larger life lessons about things like work ethic, critical thinking, the importance of volunteering, community engagement and even tolerance. Said Holquin, “Some students are in two different gangs and I’ll put them right next to each other and tell them they have to learn to coexist.” Similarly, he believes the high proportion of females in his classrooms help break down gender stereotypes from a young age.
Project Bike Tech boasts a 98% attendance rate, a boon for any school but especially for those with above-average truancy, drug use and dropout rates. Although it occasionally takes up to two years to implement a Project Bike Tech program (especially if the state doesn’t have one yet), the timeline can be reduced considerably if there’s buy-in from local leadership. The high attendance rates and employability of students — not to mention their general enthusiasm for the subject material — make it an easy sell.
“The best-case scenario is when a superintendent calls us and says, ‘I want to put this program in all the schools in my district,’” said Ross. “If we can get the mayor on board, then the floodgates open.”
Often, however, it’s a local retailer that reaches out to Project Bike Tech (bicycling team coaches are also common champions). No matter who leads the charge, the program inevitably benefits the community as a whole, an asset to everyone from local bicycle businesses to environmental nonprofits. During the summer months, when schools are closed, Project Bike Tech classrooms are often utilized by cities or other community-based organizations for similar programming. For communities that are financially challenged, the classrooms can serve as a crucial outpost for fixing up old bikes for those who might not be able to afford the service otherwise.
The companies that initially funded Project Bike Tech — Park Tool, QBP and Specialized — have stood by the program over the years as even more industry sponsors signed on. For schools looking to get involved, the organization makes it a relatively easy lift: A teacher, a classroom, and $60,000 are all that’s needed to get a new program up and running. For perspective, a new woodworking shop costs between $300,000-$500,000 and auto shops run closer to a million.
“Our classrooms really create a cycling atmosphere — it affects the whole community,” said Ross, adding that some classrooms have been running for 16 years. “They become an incredible community asset.”
Importantly, the program also creates a talent pipeline for the bike industry — which has a shortage of bike mechanics — as well as for bike and pedestrian transportation advocates in general (Holquin’s students have gone on to work in everything from city planning to infrastructure development). The Bicycle Industry Employers Association (BIEA), whose goal is to cultivate talent and diversity in the bike industry’s workforce, is set to launch collegiate-level Accredited Bicycle Technician programs later this year. BIEA hopes to establish a total of seven programs in different regions across the U.S. by fall 2024. According to Ross, having a national certificate at the college level is a crucial step to getting Project Bike Tech in more schools and helping create a clear trajectory for bike professionals.
“What Outride does through Riding for Focus at the elementary and middle school level is also crucial,” said Ross, emphasizing the importance of a complete pathway for bike-related programming from childhood through adulthood. “That way, we’re getting kids at all touchpoints. With Project Bike Tech, we don’t lose them once they get their driver’s license.”
Despite the obvious wins, Project Bike Tech still faces hurdles when it comes to soliciting human effort, such as enthusiastic high school teachers like Holquin that are willing to shepherd the program day-to-day. Still, Project Bike Tech currently graduates around 500 students every year, a number that will only continue to grow as more communities recognize its value. As 2021 gears up to be another record year for biking, cities will benefit from taking a holistic approach and investing in youth programming.
“Schools need this program because a lot of hands-on classes are disappearing,” said Holquin, adding that at the same time, governments are finally waking up to the reality of climate change. “Project Bike Tech is setting our kids up for the future, in every sense of the word.”