Jensen took industrial arts students into the computer age

MIDDLEBURY — For four decades, any Middlebury-area student with a keen interest in building or designing something has probably taken a course with Peter Jensen. As an industrial arts teacher, Jensen has helped teens turn their curiosity into reality.
But after 16 years each of teaching at the former Middlebury junior high and Middlebury Union High School, and most recently an eight-year-stint at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, Jensen is ready to step away from the old drafting table and 3-D computer. He will be retiring next month.
Jensen says his first love was always teaching, but teaching wasn’t his first job. After graduating from Northern Arizona University, Jensen worked for three years as an adjutant general officer in the U.S. Army, from 1971 to 1974. He was based at Fort Carson, outside of Colorado Springs. He worked near the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD.
“It was a very exciting time,” Jensen recalled of the early 1970s, noting the United States’ withdrawal from the Vietnam War and conflicts between Egypt and Israel in the Middle East.
In his job with the Army, Jensen helped manage personnel and field activities for U.S. forces. It was interesting work, but he yearned to teach and settle his family in a more rural environment. Middlebury, Vt., seemed like a good fit. He applied for an industrial arts teaching position for grades 7 and 8, then located within Middlebury Union High School.
“When I left as an officer in the Army I was making over $14,000 per year, but my passion for getting into education was so strong, I was willing to take a pay cut,” Jensen said of the economics of the day. “My first job paid $9,200.”
It was a substantial leap of faith for a married man with two young children, but he never regretted the decision. Jensen has since witnessed and introduced to thousands of eager students a constantly evolving technology that has steered many of his former charges to careers in engineering, architecture and other math and science fields.
Industrial arts technology was fairly rudimentary during his early years of teaching, according to Jensen. What we now refer to as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula was disguised under the old moniker of industrial arts, he noted.
“I ran essentially a makers’ lab,” Jensen said, an environment with diverse systems — electricity, plastics, metal working, woodworking and drafting — to allow students to innovate, create and ultimately produce an object to show for their efforts.
“It turned into a really fun, three-ringed circus,” Jensen said. “That age group is active anyway; they want to be making things, they want to be involved in creativity, they are adventurous and willing to try things. There was never a dull moment for any of those first 16 years.”
But as the curriculum evolved and changed, Jensen found himself yearning for a position at MUHS, which was embracing new technology. The high school and the Career Center began integrating computers into their teaching during the 1980s.
“My teaching curricular area is such that technology has changed phenomenally over time,” Jensen said. “That has been stimulating not only for me as an instructor … but also for the students, whose insatiable curiosity just ballooned with the advancement of technology.”
Jensen recalled computers becoming an integral part of his teaching as an industrial arts teacher at MUHS.
“Engineering and architecture via the computer as a tool became the curriculum,” Jensen said. “That was enlightening for a lot of students, because no longer now were you required as a young person to have good motor skills, good hand-eye coordination and good patience as was previously required of those deciding to go into engineering or architecture.”
In other words, the computer became a great equalizer that rendered obsolete the old tools of the trade — the compass, T-square and triangle.
As a result, an increasing number of students saw the engineering and architecture professions as being within their grasp.
“More women began to show up, which was fantastic,” Jensen said. “It was very empowering to a lot of students.”
Dozens of Middlebury-area students went through the MUHS industrial arts program and advanced their skills further at the Career Center.
“When (graduating students) entered college or post-high school programs in engineering or architecture, they were way ahead of the game,” Jensen said.
With the considerable instruction and technology available at their local schools, Middlebury-area students have been able to get a sense early on as to whether engineering or architecture might be in their career plans, according to Jensen.
No longer do students have to fashion their project ideas out of clay, wood or plastics.
“Now, when we investigate, innovate, evaluate, fabricate and communicate a project that we’re working on, the fabrication becomes a 3-D printing process,” Jensen said.
That process has allowed students to use computer coding to make three-dimensional objects, including miniature-scale buildings and furnishings. The Career Center — where Jensen has worked for the past eight years — has some nifty 3-D printers that are big hits with STEM students.
“There is a tremendous value in the satisfaction a person receives from being able to hold the object they have investigated, innovated and created,” Jensen said. “It is fulfilling in a way that encourages them to … get out an try things, to attempt, and to learn from the mistakes they have made along the way and make corrections.”
Jensen, 66, has remained just as inquisitive and adaptable to change as his students.
“My job has evolved over 40 years,” he said. “I have not done the same thing for 40 years. My job has become different over time, in very profound ways.
“I have to be prepared, as an instructor, to keep up.”
STEM students these days don’t want a 20-minute lecture, according to Jensen. What they want is a foundation of know-how, the right tools and the autonomy to pursue an assignment as independently as possible.
“They want to be stimulated, they want to be engaged, and they want to discover,” he said. “The discovery doesn’t have to be in the same format it was 40 years ago, where the teacher stands and delivers.”
Instead, Jensen outlines expectations and turns them loose, offering help along the way.
“No longer do we require everyone to be on ‘chapter four’ at the same time,” Jensen said. “It just doesn’t work with these kids. They want to be loose.”
Consequently, they tend to grow — and achieve — at an “amazing rate,” he said.
“Kids are now doing very advanced math with a computer program that they might not be able to explain to you in an old-fashioned math, geometry or trigonometry format,” Jensen said. “They understand it in a different way.”
Jensen is pleased to get positive feedback from former students and parents. He might be walking through a local store and hear, “Thank you, my son is in engineering,” or, “my daughter is an architect.”
“And many of those parents remember taking my course in junior high,” Jensen said with a smile.
All good things come to an end, however, and Jensen believes 40 years as an educator has been a very respectable run.
“I have enjoyed this semester as much as all of the others,” he said, “but there is a younger generation coming forward to step in. I think that is fantastic and wonderful.”
He is leaving with the hope that a new generation of engineers and architects embraces the notion of repairing the country’s aging infrastructure. As for Jensen, he will not have an idle retirement. He and his wife, Daphne, have six grandchildren residing within an hour of their home. The couple runs the Barden House Inn in West Addison. Jensen will continue to make custom furniture. And Peter and Daphne will continue their support and volunteerism in the field of hospice care in Addison County.
“There is a bit of renaissance to me,” Jensen said. “I’ll be busy.”

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