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Last class nears graduation

Composite technology students crafted a 15-pound carbon composite canoe and the mold it was made in. They damaged and repaired an airplane, built shovel molds and learned to lead. Some faced off to see just how light a canoe paddle they could create.

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Students of WITC-Superior’s composite technology program pose April 25 with projects they have been working on during the two-year program, including a 14-foot, 15-pound canoe. They are, left to right, Peter Doering, Colten Middleton, Devin Day, Justin Balsness, Greg Peterson, Wally Olson and instructor Dave Crockett. Maria Lockwood

Composite technology students crafted a 15-pound carbon composite canoe and the mold it was made in. They damaged and repaired an airplane, built shovel molds and learned to lead. Some faced off to see just how light a canoe paddle they could create.

Wally Olson of Superior holds the title at 15 ounces.

"Mine is six," said Peter Doering.

"But it's usable," Olson said of his design. "My 15-ounce paddle has made several trips to the Boundary Waters with me."

On a calm day on a smooth lake, Doering's lighter design would work.

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"Any other conditions, it's got a little bit of flex to it," the Superior man said. "By a little, I mean you pretty much have to baby it."

As they come to the end of two years of training at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College of Superior, these seven students are looking to the future. For Olson, it's launching a business building lightweight custom canoes with his brother.

"I want to be really ecologically friendly, so I'm going to be looking into some of the eco resin that they have and some of the natural fibers, like flax and hemp," Olson said.

Doering plans to start his own racing bike company.

"I've worked in the big companies before and they don't really afford you the creativity," he said. "I mean I can spend a week in the shop and come up with 100 times as many ideas as I came up with in two years of working at a big company."

Greg Peterson aims to find a job far from home.

"This type of work is worldwide and I love to travel," he said.

The town of Oliver man is eyeing a New Zealand company with a NASA contract making rockets out of carbon fibers, the same process used to make the canoe at WITC.

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"It's pretty new and it looks exciting," said Peterson, who works full time at Essentia Health. "I'm going to be sending my resume off there. I have to pass first."

Devin Day of Superior was attracted to the program during a college day event at WITC-Superior his junior year of high school.

"It's very different than I thought it would be. It's quite unique," said Day, who is interning at Clearwater Composites in Duluth. "I mean carbon fiber, I didn't realize all the applications it can be used for. It's used in aircraft, satellites, all sorts of high-end equipment like that."

Add to that wind turbines, aerospace, marine and automotive applications.

"Take a look at the inside of your car, see if you match any of this stuff to the trim," Peterson said.

Justin Balsness of Duluth spent three months interning at Wipaire in the Twin Cities, making carbon fiber floats for airplanes.

"I would go back there," he said, and he's already had an interview at Cirrus in Duluth. Balsness said he was drawn to the program because of the artistic possibilities carbon composites offer.

The course has been eye-opening for Olson.

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"The old idea of things have to be heavy and bulky to be strong is not the case," he said. "After being through this program, I am just amazed at how light things can be and still have the same strength."

The composite technology course was created in response to the 2012 announcement by Kestrel Aircraft that Superior would be the production site for its all-composite, single-engine turboprop Kestrel 350. It was estimated that between 60 and 100 composite technicians would be needed, according to instructor Dave Crockett. Although those composite jobs have not materialized, other options have.

"What we found out was the companies were sucking up our students, even our first graduating class, we lost a number of students to AAR and Cirrus," Crockett said. "They went up for an internship, they were offered a job right away and decided 'I don't need a two-year degree, I already have a job,' so they dropped out."

The program was launched in 2013, but took no enrollments in 2014 to re-tool the program to issue shorter-term certifications in repair and manufacturing. Enrollment opened again in 2015, but WITC made the decision to suspend the program. The last batch of students is set to graduate this month, except Doering and Colten Middleton. Because they jumped into the program a semester behind their classmates, the two will graduate in December, months after the classroom closes down.

"WITC is always responding and trying to serve the community and our students, wherever we find a need, can find a void to fill," said Campus Administrator Bonny Copenhaver.

The local labor market is the driving factor, she said.

When a WITC program is suspended, there is a three-year window to restart it, WITC President John Will said when the decision to shutter the course was made. Crockett said it would be cost-prohibitive to restart the program, which was built with the aid of $600,000 in state grant money.

WITC-Superior's spring graduation ceremony takes place at 7 p.m. May 19 at the Superior Middle School Gymnasium, 3626 Hammond Ave.

For the final composite technology students, it's time to look back at what they've learned and apply it to their future.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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