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Nelson Mac project helping students dust off their skills

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What does one do with sawdust? The stuff is usually tossed into the garbage bin, a useless by-product from a carpentry project.

At Nelson McIntyre Collegiate, sawdust is a valuable commodity. Last May, students at the school started building a recovery machine that converts sawdust into fire logs and bricks for landscape projects. And now, the project that has stretched traditional course and community boundaries is nearing completion.

Nelson Mac is not new to innovative projects that integrate knowledge and skills from diverse high school courses. Last year students, staff, and community helpers created a community garden at the west side of the building.

One of the lead teachers in the sawdust project is industrial arts teacher Ryan Sabourin, who secured a grant from Education Manitoba’s Education for Sustainable Development Program.
Sabourin seeks projects for his students that push the limits of their creativity and to think about the future of our planet.

 "We wanted to turn sawdust waste into a usable product, getting maximum value out of an original resource," he says.

Grade 9 student Patrick Ryczko, a dirt biker and snowmobiler and the key student worker on the project, has a love of all things mechanical. He gravitated to the project immediately.

Unexpected outcomes have emerged from the project. Patrick confesses that he is not the most attentive student in traditional courses like math and English, but the project has helped him realize how important they are.

"I’ve discovered that math is very important and that if I want to do something mechanical in the future, I need to pay more attention in class," he says.

English class has also taken on more importance for him. "I needed to download a manual that involved a lot of careful reading. I’ve had to read a lot. I need to read."

Those are powerful admissions from a student who, like many students these days, struggles to find relevance in some classes. It speaks to the importance of interdisciplinary projects in which students are asked to apply the knowledge they learn in school. 

And Patrick needed a lot of knowledge. Retrofitting an old log splitter, he welded a cone hopper to collect the sawdust, read online manuals and Internet resources, calculated the pressure required to blast the sawdust through a carefully designed tube, determined the amount of compression needed to fuse the sawdust into a solid log, and worked with the geography department  to learn more about environmental sustainability.

The project has a tangible outcome that validates the hard work.

"It’s cool to see the dust move through the machine and squeeze out its end into a fire log," Patrick says.

The sawdust recovery device works most of the time, but it occasionally clogs up as the final product is shaped.  Sabourin sees these challenges as teachable moments, opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

They are bench-testing a number of solutions to make the machine 100% reliable in the near future.

They’ll keep tweaking the machine until they get it right, because as Sabourin says "finishing the project is as important as starting it."

The inventive teacher will apply for another grant. This time, to support and sustain the school’s successful community garden project, he wants to build a solar-charged garden tiller. They’ll need to set up a solar charging station in the garden shed and engineer a tiller that runs on electricity.  

Again, students, staff and community will share knowledge and ideas to support a sustainable innovation that moves NMC closer to relying less on the power grid, and more on the ingenuity of its students.

Problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and project management – Nelson Mac is making school come alive with real and relevant projects that put classroom theory into green engineering practice.

Adriano Magnifico is a community correspondent for St. Boniface. You can contact him at

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