Hartford Shop Teaches Kids Engineering and Science Through Bike Repair
"It’s developing folks that might not know they’re an engineer yet."
A group of teenage boys hoist a red Columbia racing bike into the air, and lock it into place on a bike lift. They’re replacing the brake hoods – devices that house the thing you squeeze when you want to stop.
Brakes are just a small part of BiCi Co’s Earn-a-Bike after school program. Students learn about everything from ball bearings to bike safety by fixing up old bikes donated by people from around the area.
At the end of the eight-week program, each student takes a bike home.
Jose Huerta, a sophomore at Hall High School in West Hartford, said working on bikes gives him something positive to do with his time. "I’m learning something new," he said. "It keeps me out of trouble."
Over at a table, a volunteer helped Karon Williams lubricate a brake line.
"I actually have learned a lot," Williams said. "There’s a lot of things on a mountain bike that I didn’t know how to fix before, that I just now learned how to fix and put back together."
Williams is a junior at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. His bike-fixing teacher, Cherolis, said the students are learning skills that can be easily transferred into fields.
"If somebody didn’t realize or wanted to get more into being a mechanic, or getting into manufacturing or machines, this is a great way to start figuring out how things work," Cherolis said. "And it’s developing folks that might not know they’re an engineer yet."
An engineer himself, Cherolis left his job with Pratt and Whitney to come work for the non-profit Center for Latino Progress, which supports BiCi Co’s operations. He had started a bike co-op in Illinois a few years ago, which inspired his idea for BiCi Co.
Yanil Terón runs the Center for Latino Progress. She said the bike-fixing program is not only teaching kids about science and engineering, but it’s also giving them a cheap and clean form of transportation -- opening up a world of opportunities.
"A lot of the youth don’t have bikes, or bikes that work properly," Terón said. "By having their own bike, they have access to after school programs they haven’t been able to go to."
Cherolis uses the Earn-a-Bike program to teach historical tidbits to his students, like how women began wearing pants so they could ride bikes.
"Why do women wear pants? Well, because of bloomers," Cherolis said.
Bloomers are those puffy pants from the mid-19th Century worn by progressive women of that era. Its popularity increased in the late 1800s when a women's group advocated wearing bloomers to get women on bikes to improve their health.
Cherolis also wants to get more people to bike around the city, and this program is a way to instill the value of biking early on.
Not that many people bike in Hartford. Less than a percent of all commuters bike to work, and more than 80 percent of commuters drive cars to work without any passengers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Julio Casiano, deputy district director of the Small Business Administration, said BiCi Co provides valuable skills that can be passed along, like self-reliance.
"In the city of Hartford, this is a first," Casiano said. "It took a non-for-profit organization to look at all of the pieces of what it is to create a social enterprise, where there's value added to it, long-term."
When the program is over, the students will get a new bike, a helmet, and bike lights.
Casiano said there's a lot to be proud of. "This is something they could relate in the street," he said. "This is not something that's shameful for them. This is something that's pride -- they built this bike themselves."
The Center for Latino Progress has high hopes for BiCi Co's future, and are working on adult learning classes, as well as dual language programs.