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As Seen in: Tyler Courier-Times Telegraph, Sunday, March 5, 2006 - Section: Community - Page D1


Staff Writer

Gone are the days of high-school shop class, where sawdust-coated students sweated over lumber and wrestled with blowtorches and electric saws. Today's high school classes are constructing with computers.

In the technology education classroom at Hawkins High School, the air is clean and wood-particle-free. The haphazardly constructed wooden tables, birdhouses and stools have been replaced by long tables and tall chairs. Piles of wood and tools are cleared out, and long rows of gleaming computers circle the room.

And four Hawkins students are capitalizing on the knowledge they've gleaned in this modern "shop" class to benefit foster children. These techies, headed by teacher Bob Behnke, are constructing 70 easels for an unusual, charitable art project called East Texas Heart Gallery. The gallery is a touring exhibit of photographs of foster children who are ready for adoption. Volunteer artists have taken scores of pictures designed to represent the child's personality and spirit. There is a grinning girl named Pavla who shoots a basketball, while A'lexus tips her hat at the camera and five brothers laugh and flex their muscles. Producer Denice Grugle said in a world where 19,000 children "age-out" of adoption eligibility every year, 70 percent of children waiting for families are 8 years old or older in minority and sibling groups.

Ms. Grugle said the program is definitely working at raising awareness and adoption rates, but the need is ever-present for the children. "They want a mom and dad so bad," Ms. Grugle said. "And they're positive, uplifted children that are really hoping for their perfect mom and dad." Junior Zach Barrett, senior Michael Randell, and sophomores Connor Montgomery and Aaron Norman are working with that hope and donating their class and extracurricular time to help.

Months ago, the gallery asked the Holly Lake Kiwanis club to donate money to provide easels for the show, scheduled for April. Behnke, a Kiwanis member, was immediately asked if his technology education class could just make the easels and donate them to the project. He agreed excitedly. "It's a real-world application that someone's going to use to benefit someone else," Behnke said. "And as long as they're doing something productive, I let them go." The four boys love the class they've affectionately dubbed "tech," and Norman teases his friend Randell by saying under his breath, "Tech's the only place Michael feels smart." They all laugh, and interrupt each other in their enthusiasm to describe the inner workings of the cutting-edge techniques, software and CNC machine they'll use to make the easels.

Barrett pulls up an image of the easel he's designed in CAD, a drafting program, and explains that the computer sends the image, proportions and details of the easel to the CNC machine, which looks more like a giant, glass-encased microscope than an ultra-fast, ultra-precise tool. "This program's really incredible," Barrett said. "You can pretty much do anything in there. Your car was cut from a CNC machine." His fellow techies nod in agreement, and list all the appliances and objects created with the very technology that rests stolidly in their tech classroom. They show boxes of dominoes cut from the machine, and proudly exhibit sports team’s logos and other metal cutouts.

Next, the students carefully place the wood under the machine's drill bit, close the door and let CNC do its magic. Within minutes, the leg of an easel is perfectly cut out. A couple of screws and minor assembling later, and the easel is complete. "It is slick," Behnke said emphatically. "If I ever want to make another easel, I'll just pull up the easel file, load the material, turn it loose and let it go." Behnke worked for 14 years to obtain the bulky, expensive CNC machine, and thanked a helpful principal, Charles Leffall, and a generous school board for the improvement to his class.

"We have birthday parties for all major equipment," Behnke joked. "But he (Leffall) really believes in what the program does for kids, and so do I."

East Texas Heart Gallery will be held from noon-6 p.m. on April 9 and from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on April 10-11. The exhibit will be at the Tyler Woman's Building, 911 S. Broadway Ave., and there will be entertainment, music and refreshments available. Ms. Grugel said volunteers are still needed, and anyone interested should call (903) 521-4570.

Features writer Lindsay Randall can be reached at (903) 596-6284 or by e-mail at

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