8th Graders in Michigan Get Their Motors Running

By Sean Cavanagh — December 07, 2004 1 min read

In the military, “chopper” is a soldier’s familiar shorthand for a helicopter. In civilian circles, it’s accepted slang for a tooth, or, in the plural, a mouth full of them.

But for students at Western Middle School in Parma, Mich., that term has come to mean only one thing: a full-blown, custom-built, extended front-end motorcycle, with a value of at least $20,000.

“It’s definitely a scary machine,” says teacher Ted R. Densmore, who means that in a good way.

This semester, 8th graders in Mr. Densmore’s Engine Tech class are building a motorcycle from the pavement up, with only a minimal amount of instruction from their teacher. They have received help from a national motorcycle-parts dealer and a local supplier, who provided the materials.

Eighth graders at Western Middle School build a custom motorcycle.

Mr. Densmore says most students in the elective class have previously struggled academically. This project—one of several repair-and-construction tasks in the class—is requiring them to use math and science, in such basic but essential steps as measuring diameters and threads-per-inch for bolts and holes to secure pieces of the choppers. Students are expected to research the assembly on their own, through manuals, the Internet, and other sources.

Their goal: a fully ridable chopper, the model known for its high handlebars, stripped-down look, and long front, popularized by Peter Fonda in the cult movie “Easy Rider.” The school’s progress can be viewed at

School officials plan to enter the finished product in bike-show competitions. Next fall, they are likely to sell or raffle it off and use the proceeds to bring another chopper to life.

Tom Applegate, a past president of the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., credits officials in the 2,800-student district with finding a project that combines problem-solving with a topic that is sure to appeal to students.

“One of the skills we all need is the ability to locate information,” Mr. Applegate said. “It’s a very imaginative use.”