Sparks fly. Metal sizzles. The hot orange blaze of a plasma cutter glows off the welder’s face mask. She lifts her helmet to inspect her project. It’s a nightlight for her one-year-old grandson and, yes, it’s ocean-themed.
“It’s not your traditional classroom setting,” laughed instructor Cindy Shake, shouting over the clank, whir and grind of UAA’s welding workshop, as she introduced members of her sculptural welding class.
This relatively new course—first offered in summer 2016—has already attracted a loyal following of students, though none of them are seeking a welding degree. Most of them aren’t even in college.
“This summer, I had everything from grandmas to an art student,” Cindy noted. Her recent December class included a radiologist, an optometrist and a police officer; several students shifted their work schedules so they could take part.
Cindy’s is a short course for the community, offered by UAA’s welding and non-destructive testing program. This fast-paced one-week welding class maximizes UAA facilities while students are on break, boosts the skills of community members, builds exposure for the welding program and brings in extra revenue for the department.
It is, in essence, a win-win-win-win for welding.
Wild, welding west campus
Cindy, a graphic designer from Girdwood, has been making art from metal scraps and found objects for 17 years (her towering piece Bicycle Bloom stands at the corner of Mountain View Dr. and Bragaw St. in Anchorage). But her growing recognition as a sculptor brought more pressure to complete commissions and gallery shows. She found herself wanting to step back and share what she’s learned instead.
Meanwhile, UAA’s Community & Technical College was looking to sharpen the community aspect of its name. The college regularly sends graduates into high-demand technical industries, but “one thing our programs seemed to be lacking was that ‘community,’” explained Jeff Libby, director of the college’s Transportation & Power Division.
“Since joining UAA in 2012, I’ve found that a significant percentage of Alaska and the Anchorage community has been completely unaware that UAA offers these highly technical programs,” he continued. So, at the suggestion of former dean Bonnie Nygard (who welded the moose sculpture outside the Auto Diesel Tech Building), Jeff sought to develop an artistic welding class. Advisory Board member David Ellis, of industrial supply company Air Liquide—where both Cindy and Jeff acquire welding fuel—connected the two, and a new community course was born.
“It really took off. The first course filled in 48 hours,” Jeff noted.
One man’s trash, another man’s end table
UAA’s expansive welding workshop is housed in the labyrinthine Gordon Hartlieb Hall, where welding students train to protect Alaska’s industrial infrastructure from its extreme elements. Now, the community gets a chance to fire up the power tools, too.
Each day begins with a safety briefing, then students return to their assigned workspace, a curtained-off station that’s at once both calm and cacophonous. There’s an adjacent classroom for presentations, storing gear bags, even sharing homemade cookies.
UAA provides the helmets and gloves, plus upcycled scrap from the auto tech program, which would otherwise end up in the landfill (another welding win-win!). The provided tools blast, smoke and spark, cutting steel like butter. The power of the equipment would easily short-circuit a home grid.
“I tell the students, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to work in an extremely well-designed and outfitted industrial setting,” Cindy said, noting the necessity of ventilation and power, and how her class shows off the top-tier assets of the department. “You don’t have [this] in a home setting, and we really stress that in the class.”
“It’s an amazing opportunity. It’s a level of a shop most people would never have access to,” added Heather Tauschek, who walked across the street from her job at Providence Hospital to attend the class. “Heavy machinery and flaming things, in a controlled environment? It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Kate Konopasek, who was building the nightlight for her grandson, agreed. The retired school principal laughingly grades her skills at a C-, though she’s already taken the class three times.
“It’s great,” she said. “It’s a way for the university to help people learn a new skill [and] it’s great for people in the community to see what kind of facilities we have here.”
Cindy’s led five courses so far, and every time she sees immense growth over each quick week. Most students enroll with zero experience; “There’s a lot of hand-holding [at first],” she laughed. “Literally. You’re glove-over-glove forcing them to put the welding tip closer to the steel.”
But whether they’re novices or experts, all students leave with finished projects and seriously boosted confidence. “This was extremely empowering for everybody in the class,” she noted.
Eric Pratt, a self-professed Cindy Shake fan, took time off work to register for her advanced course. Already a repeat customer, he’s likely be back again. “Anybody who has any interest in sculpture whatsoever, don’t be afraid to take this class,” he said. “It’s a blast.”
Want to try your hand at sculptural welding? Contact the Transportation & Power Division at 907-786-1485 for more information on this community course.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement