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High schoolers set sights on building airplanes
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Minneapolis Washburn High School teacher Peter Denny (in back) with some of his aviation program students (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
A group of Minneapolis high school students wants to build an airplane. The Washburn High School aviation class has everything lined up for the project - except money. There are only a handful of high school aviation classes in Minnesota like the one at Washburn. The teacher, Peter Denny, is a pilot who is confident donors will step forward to help underwrite the venture.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Washburn student Tenzin Choerap doesn't have a shop at home, but he's discovered he likes working with tools.

"I like to do hands on work, all the drilling and cutting, things like that," he says.

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Image Student Tenzin Choerap

Tenzin and eight other students lean over work benches where they measure, cut, drill and rivet metal aircraft parts.

Frequently, one of them shouts, "Denny", and the bespectacled teacher, wearing a white shirt and necktie with airplanes on it, rushes over to answer a question.

Peter Denny taught school in Australia for 30 years. He's an airplane builder and an aviation technical adviser. Upon retirement Denny traveled to Canada where he wanted to make use of his training as a float plane pilot.

He found his way to Minneapolis, made friends and landed a job teaching. He's been at Washburn three years. Not long after he arrived he found an old aircraft for the students like Josh Bentley to restore.

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Image Restoring an old aircraft

Josh is running a steam iron over new fabric just applied to the metal frame.

"Right now we're just ironing the fuselage," he says, "So that we can make the fabric get tighter so that we can make a smooth surface for the airplane when it travels through the air."

The aircraft the students are restoring is an acrobatic model designed by a Minnesotan decades ago. The builder flew it once, realized it's limited acrobatic qualities and moved on to other projects.

Peter Denny thumps the new skin which is now tight as a drum head and pronounces it perfect. The restored aircraft be will be part of a display at a University of North Dakota aviation education building in Grand Forks.

The next project on Peter Denny's mind is for the students to assemble a new aircraft. He's trying to raise $12,000 to buy the kit.

"If that is 200 people putting together $60 each, we've got it," he says.

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Image Shooting rivets

Washburn principal Steve Couture supports the plan. The school district doesn't have the money, he says. The only way to raise it is through donations.

Couture says building an airplane fits Washburn's philosophy. The school caters to students attracted to smaller classes who want to learn by doing. He says the students in the aviation class learn skills that may lead them to a job.

"So rather than come into a metals class to make a dustpan, what we're trying to do is get kids hooked into careers," Couture says.

Learning by doing is still a popular educational philosophy and many districts have vocational and industrial technology courses. Larger districts including Minneapolis and St. Paul once had vocational high schools. Peter Denny says schools should give more students a chance to use their minds and their hands.

"You have students who learn by reading out of books, you have other students who learn well by watching something," he says, "And you have another group of students who love learn by using their hands. And it's basic concrete kinetic learning. They basically learn by doing."

Peter Denny already has another project in mind. He wants Washburn high school girls to build a second airplane. Denny says the project is one for the record books.

"Nowhere in the world, and I've done the research, nowhere in the world has an aircraft been built by an all girl class in a high school," he says.

Adults from a local Experimental Aviation Association chapter have volunteered as mentors for the airplane assembly projects. The Minneapolis Community and Technical College is also ready to help. Peter Denny says all he needs now are donors to help buy the kit for first aircraft.

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