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Students celebrate final derby race for beloved Kopachuck shop teacher

Beloved shop teacher crosses finish line of career

Kelly Bolender, an engineering design teacher at Kopachuck Middle School, is retiring after 35 years in education. On his last day, he presided over his final CO2 car derby, a popular class project where students engineer and build small race cars
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Kelly Bolender, an engineering design teacher at Kopachuck Middle School, is retiring after 35 years in education. On his last day, he presided over his final CO2 car derby, a popular class project where students engineer and build small race cars

Kopachuck Middle School students filled the gym with excited chatter and razor sharp focus, unwilling to blink in fear of missing the flurry of carbon dioxide cartridge-powered cars zoom down a 65-foot-long track set up at center court.

Tuesday’s final CO2 car derby of the school year celebrated the hard work and creativity of 32 students in Engineering Design teacher Kelly Bolender’s class. All attention was on these students as they took the floor and put the CO2 cars they had spent the trimester crafting and creating to the test on the track.

“It is a trimester-long project because we go through the whole process — from sketching, to technical drawing, to building the car and finally painting it properly,” Bolender, 60, said.

Bolender, who has taught at five different schools throughout his career, started the CO2 car derby 28 years ago at Rogers High School in Puyallup, where his students built plastic cars. When he began teaching at Kopachuck in 1999, he continued the CO2 car project in the wood shop, and it has since been a student favorite.

“Today has been so fun,” said seventh-grader David Holmen. “I learned a lot from this project and it was fun because we all worked so hard on our cars. I like being able to see how cool the end product is.”

The CO2 car derby was a bittersweet event this time around as it also marked Bolender’s last day as a teacher at Kopachuck.

With a project that has now become a Kopachuck tradition, students and staff alike are greatly going to miss Bolender and his kind, quiet leadership.

“I can’t say enough how much we’re going to miss the rich experience he gives the kids and staff,” language arts and social studies teacher Hannah Hollet said. “He has an amazing, calm presence that everyone enjoys and students have always felt safe and comfortable in his class.”

Bolender not only taught students in his Engineering Design class to design and build cars, but to be thoughtful and critical thinkers.

“With this project you mess up a lot and have to redo things,” seventh-grader Isaac Farquha said. “And you have to think about what you did wrong so that you make a change for the better.”

After spending 18 years teaching Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Manufacturing and Engineering Design, there is a lot that Bolender is going to miss about Kopachuck.

“Mostly I’m going to miss working with students and seeing their enthusiasm towards learning and for a project like this,” said Bolender. “I’m also going to miss my colleagues and peers who contributed to my experiences teaching here.”

Bolender is leaving Kopachuck equally excited about what retirement has in store for him.

“There’s so much I’m looking forward to in my retirement. I’ll be able to pursue my other interests,” he said.

Hollett believes that the CO2 car project and derby will continue after Bolender retires, saying that the students won’t let the next teacher give it up.

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