Japanese students study green design at career center

MIDDLEBURY — Sixteen Japanese students crossed an expansive ocean to get to the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center this past Thursday. And while they had made their crossing by plane, it still seemed somewhat a propos that the focus of their visit would be some boats being studied and replicated by their counterparts at the Middlebury vocational-technical center.
The visiting students were from the Tottori Prefecture, a relatively rural region that lies on the north coast of western Japan, facing the Sea of Japan. Their visit was part of a Youth Environmental Leadership Exchange program organized by Shoreham-based Green Across the Pacific (GATP). Green Across the Pacific is a non-profit organization seeking to improve cultural and environmental awareness and cooperation around the world through student exchange and apprenticeship programs.
In Vermont last week the Japanese visited various schools, businesses and even a fashion designer to learn about Vermont ideas about ecology, sustainability and green design.
In Middlebury on Thursday, the visiting students — and members of their host families in Essex and Burlington — filed into Jake Burnham’s engineering class at the career center. The visitors were primarily juniors, ages 15 to 17, who spend more time in the classroom than their American colleagues as a result of the longer academic year in Japan. Peter Lynch, executive director of GATP, explained that the school year in Japan spans from April to March.
“There’s a lot of rote learning; it’s pretty intense,” Lynch said of the academic rigors in Japan. “During their breaks, the students are preparing for exams. Their vacations are an opportunity to study, is the way many families look at it.”
The visitors listened and watched intently as career center students, Burnham and Douglas Brooks — a renowned boat builder, author and researcher who lives in Vergennes — described the meticulous process through which the class has been duplicating two 14-foot trapping boats. The boats were made by farmers in the Champlain Valley through the first half of the 20th century to catch muskrats and sell their pelts for extra income. Brooks and the career center are conducting this boat-building program in collaboration with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, with funding from the Lake Champlain Basin Program.
Brooks, speaking in English and in Japanese, explained how the Hannaford engineering students first measured two actual trapping boats that local families had lent to the program. They then crafted some pattern boards around which the wooden planks will be molded into the exact shape of the originals. The two replica boats will be endowed with pointed stems and sterns. The base of each boat will be fortified with some sheet metal, such as tin. Brooks explained that pointed stems and stern were needed to cut through the thin coating of ice in the marshes and wetland areas where the trappers hunted. That hunting often took place during early spring.
Instead of oars, the boats are equipped with poles. The bottom of each pole is equipped with a metal, forked bracket that the trapper would stick into the marsh bed to propel the boat forward.
Students also showed the traps that the hunters would set out to snare their quarry. Muskrats, they told the visiting students, were hunted for their pelts, and not as food.
“In this area, most of the men who did this trapping were farmers who built their own boats,” Brooks said, noting that some of the Hannaford students had interviewed some of the elderly men who had used such vessels. “They would leave the farm and take their sons to trap muskrats. A farmer could make in one month a lot of money.”
The Japanese visitors were intrigued by the construction and hunting tradition. They asked questions, including whether any Japanese boat-building techniques were employed (no) and how the boats were made watertight. Brooks, who has trained in the art of Japanese boat construction by Japanese masters, explained the Vermont muskrat boats were only used seasonally, so the hunters would place them in the water before use, causing the wooden planks to expand and seal. The hunter would then bail out the boat and be good to go.
Career center students Jake Dombek, Jordon Broughton and Calvin Desforges helped guide the visitors through the boat-building process.
Lynch spoke with the Japanese students about how the historic boat-building project fit into the “green design” theme of their weeklong explorations in Vermont. The Addison County farmers used local wood and traditional building techniques that had evolved over the years to fit the specific local circumstances.
“The farmers who built these boats had no choice, they had to use green design,” Lynch said.
And he praised the way the Hannaford class had used 21st-century computer-aided design software and a 3-D printer but also brought in Brooks to share “the wisdom of our ancestors in the design process.”
BOAT BUILDER DOUGLAS Brooks shares a lesson on historic trapping boats with students from Japan at Hannaford Career Center woodshop last week. The Vergennes resident spoke some of his words in Japanese. Independent photo/John McCright
The American and Japanese students were able to briefly mingle after the presentation. And while they didn’t share the same language, that didn’t stop them from connecting. The Japanese visitors taught their counterparts some Japanese words, which the career center students gamely tried to pronounce, eliciting some good-natured giggling. The international language of the “selfie” was on full display, as the young people paired up and grinned for photos on their cell phones.
Future exchanges such as this will continue.
It was in 2008 that Governors Douglas of Vermont and Hirai of Tottori initiated a friendship agreement. Developing this youth exchange represents part of a larger effort to improve cultural and economic relations between Vermont and Tottori for mutual cultural and economic benefit.
During the balance of their stay, the Japanese students were scheduled to visit Middlebury College and the University of Vermont, and to spend a day at Keeping Track in Jericho, where they learned about interpreting animal tracks and signs, and Green Design in natural systems.  Also on the agenda: a visit to Yestermorrow Design Build School in Waitsfield,  and a lesson on slow fashion design from Gyllian Svensson, the owner of The Bobbin in Burlington.
While the visitors live thousands of miles away from Vermont, you wouldn’t know it.
“They have a lot in common with us,” Lynch said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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