Bellingham Technical College's Welding Rodeo: Community Outreach, Fun and Education

Bellingham Technical College's Welding Rodeo: Community Outreach, Fun and Education

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Bellingham Technical College started its Welding Rodeo in 2002 as a way to spur enrollment and raise its public profile. The event has since become one of the premier welding competitions in the Pacific Northwest, bringing together community, students and industry professionals. It's also helped the school triple its enrollment in welding and expand its program/skill offerings.
Updated: June 27, 2018
Published: May 3, 2010

Smart teams in the Welding Rodeo start with a plan that includes, drawings,
dimensions and even a small-scale model.

Bellingham Technical College (BTC) held its 9th annual Welding Rodeo May 21 and 22, 2010 on its campus in Bellingham, Washington. First modeled after the SkillsUSA contest, the Welding Rodeo has evolved into a sculpture competition where teams compete by creating artwork out of scrap heaps of twisted steel and metal.

Thousands of people attend each year, and the finished works go up for auction at the end of the event. The auction helps generate thousands of dollars in welding scholarship fund for BTC's welding program. What started out as a skills competition has transformed into a major part of the school-and the community's-identity.

"Bellingham isn't easy to find, but now we're on the map," says JereĀ“ Donnelly, welding instructor, BTC. "Everyone knows the Welding Rodeo. You go down to Seattle and mention it and people say 'oh yeah, we know about that.' It has a life of its own now. It's amazing. And we've brought a lot of attention to this campus. A lot of people have come to this campus that didn't even know we were here."

The artist puts the finishing touches on the aluminum eagle. Notice how the
repeated wing patterns create an illusion of feathers.

Raising its Profile with Local Industry

Bellingham is the last major American city on Interstate 5 before you reach the Canadian border. Located 90 miles north of Seattle, this community is known more for its picturesque vistas of Mt. Baker and Bellingham Bay than it is as a hotbed for metalworking.

"That's one of the big things that drove the Welding Rodeo," says Donnelly, "bringing awareness to the public about the industry. As soon as you say 'welding' to some people, their faces go blank. All they think of are people that swing hammers and make sparks. Bringing people on campus and showing them this beautiful first class facility is important."

"It was also recruiting oriented," says Don Anderson, welding technology instructor, BTC. "In our first year, a lot of programs were on edge. When enrollment starts going down and you look at the programs, welding wasn't growing at the time. It was scary."

Bellingham's curriculum offers three certificates: a Certificate in Basic Welding Skills, a Certificate in Industrial Welding and an Associate Degree in Applied Science-Welding Technology-Aluminum/Steel Fabrication & Aluminum Welding, Pipe Welding, Structural Fabrication. Its training facility features 54 permanent welding booths outfitted with industry-leading multi-process and Stick welding equipment and an additional 50 temporary booths to fit current demand. Enrollment has tripled since moving into a new facility in 2005, and they've gone from two full-time instructors to four full-time instructors and two part-time instructors.

"We certify them to Washington Association of Building Officials (WABO) standards, which is based on AWS D1.1," says Anderson. "We morphed from there because our local industry told us they wanted more fabrication skills, more well-rounded individuals, but they also want specialization. The industries locally are primarily boat building, fabrication shops and refineries. Refineries need pipe welders and so we decided that we needed a full-bore pipe welding program. And the shipbuilding and repair industry here has largely gone to aluminum, so we needed an aluminum welding program. And then we have the structural steel needs. So that pretty much dictated to us that we needed to expand our program and give people hands-on training in everything."

Both Donnelly and Anderson, who founded the event together, believe that the Welding Rodeo at least partially created the visibility and excitement that has vaulted it to the third-ranked program at the school (behind IT and Nursing).

"I really wonder, if we didn't have the Welding Rodeo here, if we'd have this new building," says Donnelly. "I don't think we would have."

To make the eagle's wings, the team created a cardboard template and traced the wing pattern with a magic marker. Using a plasma cutter, the artist can precisely and quickly cut out several wings. 

Community Involvement at Heart of Event

The Welding Rodeo has exposed locals to this state-of-the-art facility and opened doors to students who may not have pursued welding as a career before, including a substantial enrollment and participation by new female welders. Some participants have even moved on to be members of the BTC staff: the winning artist from the first year's event, Mary Kuebelbeck, is now a welding instructor.

"We made a 14-ft. giraffe," says Kuebelbe ck. "There were five teams at the time, and the city of Bellingham purchased the giraffe and it currently sits on the library lawn, part of the City of Bellingham's art collection."

The event has grown considerably from that first year when Kuebelbeck won. The 2010 edition features two days of action: one day of high school/college competition and one day of professional competition. As the community involvement has grown, so has participation from the industry. Local welding distributors and equipment manufacturers donate equipment and supplies and run booths at the event. Miller Electric Mfg. Co. has supplied welding, plasma cutting and personal protection equipment for use during the competition.

"That first year we went around and begged and borrowed from different shops," says Donnelly. "This year, people are throwing money at us for scholarships and letting us know that they want to be a part of the event. Shops are donating us metal-they have set the stuff aside all year long. They send teams to compete. It's a great community event."

Overall, the Welding Rodeo has provided the right mix of fun and education, and it has accomplished the goal that Donnelly and Anderson set out with from day one: raise visibility and educate the public on the skill, pride and art of one of the most important and misunderstood trades in the industry.

"When they come to a community technical college, we want to expose them to a real-life career," says Central Welding Supply's Marshall Judy, who heavily supports the Welding Rodeo with equipment and time and is also a BTC Welding Program Advisory board member. "These are good paying jobs that people can support families with and have life-long careers. The Welding Rodeo has shown the community that. You just need to connect with them."

Interested in organizing your own Welding Rodeo? The welding instructors at BTC will gladly share the template for their success so that other educational institutions can raise the visibility of welding in their community. Contact BTC by following the link to the Welding Rodeo.

Old cylinder tops, valves and scrap metal donated from local industry contribute to the Welding Rodeo's success. 

Welding Rodeo Tips from Champion Mary Kuebelbeck

Mary Kuebelbeck won the inaugural welding rodeo in 2002 and has cemented herself as a fixture on Bellingham Technical College's campus. Kuebelbeck is an exhibiting artist with a background in structural steel, sheet metal and fabrication who now teaches full time. While she stopped competing in 2007, she is still an avid promoter of the event and offered up a few tips to would-be sculptors participating in similar contests.

1.    Be Prepared: "If they're smart," she says, "most teams will have a plan. They may have even made some patterns for cutting. They'll certainly have some type of blueprint with some dimensioning on it. The really smart teams will actually make a maquette, or model, prior to the event.

2.    Do NOT Work on the Ground: "You want to work on a table. Get yourself off the ground because you'll be very sore by the end of the day. Have a canopy, both for rain and for sun.

3.    Beware Post-Lunch Productivity: Get most of your stuff done before lunch because, once you're done with lunch, you're really tired and you start to feel all of your achy bones and you just don't work as fast. You're brain isn't making all those quick decisions and you start to doubt yourself a little bit. The audience gets bigger and bigger, so people distract you.

4.    Pick a Leader: "There are a lot of split-second decisions to be made. You just have to make those decisions and keep rolling and keep moving forward. You can't stop and have a four-person discussion about one thing. It's best to have one leader, or one leader at the beginning of the day and one leader at the end of the day."

5.    Have Fun: "There are definitely parts of the day where we get a little testy with one another, but when the event is over and you've seen what you've accomplished, the feeling is just so great."