By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
NATOMA -- Cameron Eickhoff said his success in his major in college, and his part-time job, stems from the education he received while attending high school at Natoma.
And Eickhoff, a junior at Fort Hays State University, barely got in on Chris Broeckelman's newest addition to his STEM curriculum in his industrial technology program during Eickhoff's senior year at Natoma.
With the use of the school's own saw mill and kiln, the woodworking shop at the small 1A school in Osborne County features all aspects of STEM, a curriculum that includes the use of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Students in Broeckelman's classes now get the chance to cut their own wood and dry it, then use that wood for their class projects for the school year.
Broeckelman, in his eighth year of teaching industrial technology at Natoma, came up with the idea when Hays resident Jerry Green donated a sawmill to Natoma several years ago.
Broeckelman thought if they could get the sawmill to work, students could cut their own wood.
He started fixing up the mill, and his students started researching the cost of kilns to dry the wood. Two years ago, the school board for USD 399 approved the purchase of a dehumidification kiln.
Broeckelman put up an 11-by-14 foot building outside the wood shop to house the kiln, where the students stack their cut wood, then monitor the moisture readings to determine moisture content and lower or raise the humidity level as necessary.
There is wood aplenty in and around Natoma, with Paradise Creek running through town. Other residents also have donated wood to the cause. So students have numerous choices for their projects, including white oak, walnut, green ash, hackberry, cedar, box elder, honey locust, mulberry, three kinds of elm -- red, American and Siberian elm -- and even apricot.
So students now can have a hand in their projects from start to finish.
Along the way, they learn more than the average high school student taking a woodworking class.
After cutting the wood in the fall, the students weigh sample pieces and figure the moisture in them using electronic probes, calculating each slab of wood and how much it should weigh when it's completely dry.
Freshman Erika George, who describes herself "as more of an agriculture girl" and enjoys ag courses most, still enrolled in Broeckelman's wood processing class -- and is glad she did.
"I've learned a lot about measurements in here," said George, who is making a staff for her bow and arrows.
"He's a great teacher, and one of the smartest people I've ever known," Eickhoff said of Broeckelman. "And for a school the size (of Natoma), it's probably the best wood shop I've seen.
"He taught me a lot, both in woods and elsewhere," said Eickhoff, a four-year member of Natoma's scholars bowl team, which Broeckelman coaches. "And I'm still using the same construction methods I learned in high school."
One of Broeckelman's students also said he might major in some type of construction technology.
"Between coaching and woodworking," senior Cale Hooper said. "Or both."
After being introduced to woodworking in junior high, Hooper said he took a class every year in high school.
"If I don't major in some type of (woodworking) in college, I will still do it in my own free time," he said.
In what Broeckelman called "the most difficult design" during his tenure, Eickhoff made a cedar chest his senior year at Natoma that featured octagonal raised panels and inlay work. That won Eickhoff the top senior award that year at the annual Western Kansas Technology Education Fair at Fort Hays State University.
Between 30 and 40 students in five different woodworking and cabinetmaking classes in grades eight through 12 study under Broeckelman each year.
Broeckelman said he hopes he is able to instill in his students the same passion to excel in woodworking he experienced as a student at Golden Plains High School in Rexford.
"I had a woods teacher in eighth, ninth, 10th grades who was a very good mentor to me growing up," Broeckelman said. "And that really helped. I just really enjoyed it, decided to continue on with it."