A second-hand partially disassembled mountain bike hangs off a blue stand at the front of a workshop in King George secondary, a small West End high school.
Pedals, a reflector, a headset, cranks with three chain rings, and a few other parts lay scattered in a cardboard box beneath it. The bike and its parts belong to Grade 10 student Jelena Lazic.
Despite its state of disrepair, the garage sale find has served the Serbian-born teenager well-initially as transportation for her family, which doesn't have a car, and now as a learning tool in a technical studies 10 course that includes sections on robotics and bicycle mechanics. Lazic, 15, is repairing the bike as a class project with 14-year-old classmate Maha Al-Fahim, who's of Iranian origin.
"I took off the pedals because the bearings are rusted and I might have to replace them. I think I'm missing a couple. And I had to take off the brakes-it has a really old brake system," says Lazic, whose ease with "bike talk" is partly due to King George teacher Jay Lo.
Lo developed and introduced the bike portion of the tech studies class she's enrolled in-soon to be a stand-alone course called Human Power 1 next school year-to complement an extracurricular program known as Bikes.Community. Run by Robert Lee YMCA, Bikes.Community launched at King George in late September. It uses bikes as a vehicle to promote healthy lifestyles, to build students' leadership skills, to strengthen ties with their community and to celebrate participants' cultural diversity.
Lazic and Al-Fahim are involved in both cycling-focused initiatives, which capitalize on and actively promote Vancouver's rapidly growing obsession with cycling.
For Lazic, the club and the class have proved invaluable-she's picked up technical know-how, met new friends and even found a common interest with her father. "It feels amazing. I can show off at home and help out my dad [with bike repairs]," she says. "In Serbia, my uncle ran a bike shop. He and my dad would do all this work and I would always feel left out. I wanted to help out, but I didn't know how to use any of the tools. I didn't even know how to fix a flat tire. And now I have a kit for that."
T raffic-heavy Denman Street borders King George secondary at 1755 Barclay St., a school which is otherwise surrounded by densely populated residential streets. Its location in a neighbourhood dominated by apartment buildings, with a significant car-free population, and its proximity to bike paths around English Bay and Stanley Park makes it an ideal site for pushing environmentally friendly cycling programs.
Nudging might be a better word in King George's case. Like many Vancouver schools, it embraces "green" projects. Last year, stu-dents built planter boxes for a rooftop garden at St. Paul's Hospital for a YMCA-run initiative, funded through a WelcomeBC grant that's geared towards proposals involving newcomers to the city.
When the garden was completed, the Y, in conjunction with King George staff, dreamed up Bikes.Community as a second so-called demonstration project that qualified for WelcomeBC's one-time $150,000 grant. The project's partners include Gordon Neighbourhood House, the West End Residents Association and PEDAL-Pedal Energy Development Alternatives.
The overall idea was to gift participating students with donated second-hand bikes in need of repair and have them refurbish them, while they also met up for regular group activities. Twenty-seven students from 12 countries of origin were accepted into Bikes. Community-the majority of whom are King George high school students, although five attend its feeder elementary schools, Elsie Roy and Lord Roberts.
It's been a busy year for the group. Last fall, PEDAL, which promotes pedal-powered technology, ran four full-day Saturday cycling workshops at King George for Bikes.Community to teach students basic maintenance and repair.
Students have also been meeting at the Robert Lee YMCA on Burrard for two hours on Wednesdays after school to discuss subjects ranging from health and the environment to diversity and leadership. Monthly group bike rides are planned, as well as monthly community dinners for participants and their families.
Jeanine Ball, the YMCA's Bikes.Community coordinator, considers the program so successful she wants it expanded to five additional schools, which could use King George's Human Power curriculum if its board approved. "[Bikes.Community] exceeded expectations," she says, pointing out students solidified friendships, gained confidence and developed speaking skills.
"I've seen that across the whole group. They're ability to work in different groups- mixed ages, mixed cultures-I've seen those skills grow. And the freedom and independence that comes from being able to have a bike that's their own bike makes a huge difference. It means things like they can have a part-time job that they can get to on their own. They can do extracurricular activities at school without needing someone to come and give them a ride. It makes a difference in the lives of their families as well."
Ball is seeking a minimum $75,000 grant to expand Bikes.Community to the five schools that have shown interest. The grant would cover basic supplies and materials and pay for a coordinator position. The Vancouver School Board has already signed a letter of support, which will help with funding applications, and the program fits well with the Y's overall mandate, according to Ball.
"The YMCA is focused on developing healthy children and families and so it is part of the focus on nurturing the development of youth and leadership," she says.
Tattoos, a Mohawk and multiple ear piercings-Lo sports a non-conformist look that might seem out of place in the front of a conventional classroom. But conventional is not what the 37-year-old teacher is after. He's more interested in creativity, forward-thinking ideas and providing students with lessons to serve them in the real word. It's a holistic teaching philosophy endorsed by King George secondary, which offers a middle years international baccalaureate program that promotes project-based learning.
Lo, who's worked for the VSB since 2007, joined King George's staff in September as a member of its technical studies department. Cycling is one of his interests, so when he was hired, vice-principal Damian Wilmann recruited him as an advisor to Bikes.Community. Wilmann also suggested Lo add a bike mechanics section to tech studies 10 and encouraged the development of extensive bike-centred curriculum that's evolving into a four-level Human Power course. (In its first year, the course will be categorized under metalworking, but Lo and Wilmann hope it will become board-approved curriculum and stand on its own in the future)
"We're trying to promote ideas that broaden students thinking, create confidence in public speaking and get kids to look at big issues-look at diversity issues, look at environmental issues, look at sustainability issues," Wilmann explains.
Human Power does exactly that. The ambitious curriculum starts with level one, an introduction to bike mechanics, which is slated to begin in September. It looks at the bicycle through three perspectives. A technical perspective focuses on basic bike maintenance and repair, a scientific one examines concepts such as torque and pulley systems, and a health perspective stresses the importance of cardiovascular health, culminating in monthly bike rides.
Human Power 2, a.k.a. the "Money Maker," sees the bicycle studied through business and social perspectives. If it moves forward as proposed, students would run a bike shop at King George to learn about profit margins, overhead costs and customer service. The social portion would see students investigating the automobile's societal impact and subjects such as carbon taxes and bike lanes. Lo envisions it culminating in a four-day bike tour of Vancouver Island. "With a fuel crisis being inevitable, society will have to shift its perspectives on the automobile and human transportation. This course prepares students to help shape the attitudes of the next generation," the course description explains.
Lo calls Human Power 3 "Crazy Bikes and Guatemala." Students would study the bike through engineering and arts perspectives. They'd learn metal painting and finishing techniques to convert their bikes into what Lo describes as "rolling art pieces." Welding and metalworking would allow students to be creative and design projects such as four-seater bike-cars, choppers and double-deckers.
Students would also build "bike machines" for Third World countries, potentially in conjunction with an organization such as Maya Pedal, which works in Guatemala. Students would apply engineering and fabrication skills to produce machines that pump water, husk corn, grind grain or perform other laborious tasks to make life in rural Guatemala easier. They'd bring the so-called "bike machines" to Guatemala at the end of the year and teach locals how to use them. A fourth Human Power Course would see students further hone engineering and fabrication skills.
While details for Human Power still need to be worked out, Lo maintains hands-on learning offers the best educational outcomes for students-a view shared by both the YMCA's Ball and King George secondary school's administration. "The whole entire didactic form of teaching where teachers lecture at the front of the class for a half hour at a time is disappearing further and further back on the horizon. It's much more important to get kids involved now and have ownership of their education. When you have project-based learning, they really dive into it," Lo says.
King George's bike workshop, used by both Bikes. Community and Lo's tech studies class, is in a small, non-descript classroom used for an English course last year. Not much has been done to transform the room. Slippery linoleum floors aren't ideal for the oily work, but Lo is grateful for the space, which houses bikes restored by Bikes. Community, as well as a pile of junk frames that will eventually be disassembled and their parts categorized for re-use.
A hand-made tool board affixed to a wall displays two kits of bike tools and a socket set purchased courtesy of the YMCA project. The back wall is reserved for a future bike rack that will hold 40 or 50 bikes, so only those being worked on will take up the limited floor space. Lo envisions adding welding facilities in the future if funding or partners can be found, while another plan involves starting a bike co-op to allow students and others in the West End neighbourhood to borrow bikes.
Today, the goals are more modest. Students, including Lazic and Al-Fahim, are in class working on a standard bike repair and maintenance check, which must be completed by the end of the course. Al-Fahim kneels on the floor beside Lazic's bike, using needle nose pliers to manipulate wires.
Lazic grabs a cable cutter and bends over to help. She says they need to tighten the wires so the derailleur will move inward and keep the chain from falling off. Lazic's palms are blackened with grease, but it's the job not the state of her hands that interests her. "It's really entertaining and I don't mind getting my hands dirty- learning about all the bearing systems and how to fix a flat tire and clean the chains has been a lot of fun," she says.
Lazic's family moved to Vancouver when she was eight, returned to Serbia for Grade 7, then came back when she entered high school in Grade 8. "We were actually supposed to go back and stay there but the economy in Serbia is not as strong as the one in Canada, so we came back," she explains. The carless family relies on transit and three bikes to get around. Her father picked up the garage sale bike when they returned to Vancouver to use for errands such as shopping. He repainted it black to cover rust marks and later gave it to his daughter when he bought a second one. Bikes. Community gave Lazic another bike, which she's since repaired. "I have it at home. My dad's using it right now," she says. "He actually loves it."
The original black bike needed maintenance, so Lazic brought it to the tech class at King George for repair.
The teenagers, the only girls taking the tech 10 course, periodically stop work to help their classmates because they're more familiar with bike mechanics thanks to PEDAL's fall workshops. They only have a few repairs left to do on Lazic's bike. "There's just a bit of work and then we'll be done. I just have to put the bottom bracket back in, maybe adjust the brakes a bit and then that's it," Lazic says.
"It shouldn't take that long [to finish]," adds Al-Fahim, who has one goal in mind. "We're going to go biking around the seawall and Stanley Park, so we have to fix our bikes so they're safe enough to bike-so we feel they're safe enough."
Al-Fahim was born in Vancouver, but from age five spent most of her life, apart from summer vacations, in Abu Dhabi where her father worked. The family of five moved to Vancouver permanently in the summer of 2010. Her father is a professor at UBC. The Al-Fahims' apartment is a 10-minute walk from school. They own a car, but don't use it much. In Abu Dhabi, they had bikes, but rarely used them.
"The thing in Abu Dhabi is nobody uses bikes. They don't even walk. It's mainly cars. The weather is really hot and it's not that safe," explains Al-Fahim, whose family owns five bikes now-her brother usually rides the one Bikes.Community gave her.
The club and Lo's class have changed the way Al-Fahim thinks about cycling-it's made her understand the health benefits and the need to consider the environment.
"Before I didn't really care about bikes because we barely used them, so it wasn't really important. Now I feel there's the oil crisis and health [issues], so I feel bikes are way more important."