Building a Base – Handmade Skis at Gould
Photography by Cait Bourgault
As students use the Composite Constructions class in the Marlon Family IDEAS Center to create their own handmade skis and snowboards, they’re also developing sophisticated digital and physical skills that they’ll continue to use for a lifetime.
Building a Base – Handmade Skis at Gould
“This is so stressful,” Elijah Grammas ’21 sighs as he stretches and takes a break from meticulously piecing together the topsheet design for the skis he is building by hand. He grips an X-ACTO® knife in one hand, anchors the delicate wood veneer with the other, and makes precise cuts with laser focus. His plain white T-shirt isn’t dress code, but it’s a forgivable offense while laboring in the IDEAS Center outside of class time. Stressed as he is at the moment, building his own set of skis has been a lifelong dream.
“When I discovered that I could have this opportunity at Gould, to build a pair of skis that I could eventually ski on, it’s something that I was definitely not going to miss.”
– Elijah ’21
Now in its third year, Composite Constructions is one of a dozen offerings housed in Gould’s maker space on the lower level of Hanscom Hall, and it’s quickly becoming a student favorite.
“It shows students the blend between math, and science, and art, and digital design, and problem-solving, and something they are passionate about, the On-Snow component. It’s absolutely a hybrid blend of what we do really well here.” says Marlon Family IDEAS Center Director Sara Shifrin ’88. These are the kinds of tangible applications that Shifrin envisioned when she helped establish the maker space and the paired academic program.
At the core of learning in the IDEAS Center is Design Thinking, a methodology for problem-solving rooted in empathy, and popularized at Stanford’s d.school. While Composite Constructions is largely a fabrication course, the class gives students an introduction to tools they might not otherwise encounter. Building competencies with digital tools like laser cutters and Adobe Illustrator, paired with hands-on experience in the physical lab using planers, bandsaws, and belt sanders, prepares students for creative problem-solving in the future.
“This class [shows] students the potential of the IDEAS Center. Sometimes you just need to show people the possibilities, and then the dreams begin to grow,” says Shifrin.
Layers of Learning
The Composite Constructions class is capped at six students, determined by the time and tools available. As a result, the group resembles a tight-knit maker crew as opposed to an academic cohort. Students learn to trust and depend on each other, turning each pair of handmade skis or snowboard into a collaboration. They rely on each other’s strengths and discover their role within the group.
Walking around the lower level of Hanscom during a class is a little like watching a masterfully choreographed performance. One student sends an illustration to the laser cutter for their ski’s design, while another is cutting out wood cores. One group prepares bags for the vacuum press, while another is lining up layers to see how they stack up. Students come and go with a sense of purpose, shifting from station to station as availability allows like they’ve been doing it for years. Weaving efficiently throughout the space, they pause briefly to check in, bounce an idea, or validate a decision before proceeding.
At the center of the dance is maker-in-residence Billy Ayotte. A better analogy for what Ayotte does might be the conductor of an orchestra. He doesn’t play the instruments himself, but rather guides the musicians, keeping them on track and playing harmoniously until they all arrive at the end of the symphony together.
“[It’s] an opportunity to have an experience. At the end, they feel that sense of accomplishment. They’ve made something that when they started the class, they probably thought was impossible.” says Ayotte. “The whole point of the maker movement is to show that you can learn through doing and you can take on challenges that are bigger than you, earlier than you think.”
“A lot of people are surprised that a 16-year-old girl made her own pair of skis. People say, ‘Did you really make your own skis?’”
– Lexi ’21
The students display so much creative confidence and proficiency, that it’s hard to believe those abilities ever came into question.
“I never would have thought that as a sophomore I’d be building skis,” laughs Lexi Ordway ’21. “A lot of people are surprised that a 16-year-old girl made her own pair of skis. People say, ‘Did you really make your own skis?’ I usually just talk about the process — making the topsheet, shaping the edges, putting it all together in the press, and I think when I really start getting specific about all the things we do, people [realize], ‘She actually made skis.’”
It seems as if this class was custom-made for Lexi. A lifelong skier, she has a wealth of experience working in a wood shop at her family’s summer camp. “I love being hands-on in classes. This class puts both my love of skiing and actual [hands-on learning] together. Being able to learn about something that I’ve always done is a great opportunity.”
Even with the resources and supports that Gould provides, Composite Construction remains a challenging course to pack into a trimester elective with only 22 official meeting times. It would be, that is, if the students weren’t fully immersed and energized by the project.
“This class hits the optimal flow of learning for students,” says Shifrin. “They don’t even know they’re in class, they don’t even know they’re spending a lot of time down here, they’re just absolutely engaged.”
What’s in a Ski? Click the gallery to find out what really goes into building a set of skis by hand.
“We worked outside of class whenever we could,” says Elijah. “On Sundays, I’d come in and work on whatever I could. I think I came here [one day] and worked maybe eight or ten hours, just cutting stuff out and putting it together.”
As a high-level alpine ski racer, Lexi missed a significant number of classes in the fall while at a training camp in Austria. Between Ayotte’s level of commitment and her determination, she was able to come into the IDEAS Center outside of class time to catch up.
“Mr. Ayotte was super flexible with his schedule. I came in on a Sunday for six hours, and we just hammered everything out. We finished building it, we did my topsheet, we bent edges. I got caught up and everything was OK,” she says, smiling.
Meeting the students where they are, whether on a Sunday morning or during a late night or study hall, is never a question for Ayotte, who appreciates their dedication.
“The reward of a class like this is seeing the kids get excited about building and designing something that they can use. It’s never a question of whether they can find the time. Seeing that level of engagement and passion from students in an academic class is very rewarding as a teacher.”
With the building process behind them, the stress and intense focus have been replaced with gratification and the eager anticipation of getting their new prized possessions on-snow. It’s clear the impact this project has had on Lexi.
“I definitely feel like I accomplished something, and it’s a 100 percent once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. To do it at school, as a class, with peers — that’s something that I’ll never forget.”
Elijah already has plans for his skis once they have bindings. The twinkle in his eye tells you he’s already made this run a thousand times in his mind. “My favorite trail at Sunday River is Locke Line right underneath the Locke chairlift. Ideally, on a powder day, I’d like to skin up early in the morning, go to that trail, and have the greatest run of my life, on the skis that I made. It’s something I’m going to remember for quite a long time.”