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Training Wheels : Instructor Uses the Bicycle as a Teaching Tool--and as a Reward for Good Students


To some people, a bicycle is just basic transportation, a rolling hunk of metal and rubber.

But not to Randall Wilson, a faculty member at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. A bicycle, he says, can teach young people a lot about design, mechanics, safety, human anatomy, and the world below their tires and above their handlebars.

And that's not all, according to the master craftsman and furniture maker.

"I think bicycle ownership helps with responsibility, pride, self-reliance, socializing and playing. All things that are important in growing up," Wilson said from his workshop at the institute near Marina del Rey.

In two previous summers, Wilson led SCI-Arc students and high school-age youngsters from low-income neighborhoods around Los Angeles in designing and building customized bicycles. Called "Cycles of Expression," the fantastical array of 30 low-rider, tandem and Art Deco bicycles was exhibited in New York's Grand Central Station last year.

That creativity impressed officials at the Ahmanson Foundation, which gave $10,000 for this summer's bike activities at SCI-Arc. In a change of gears, Wilson is using the funds to provide a new bicycle, a helmet, and a lock to 100 elementary schoolchildren. SCI-Arc work-study students deliver the store-bought bikes to youth centers and schools and conduct lessons about safety and repairs.

The recipients were chosen because they had good grades and good deportment and, for the most part, came from families not able to easily afford the new Road Warriors with thick tires.

"We wanted to reward good behavior," Wilson said. "There are many programs to help kids in trouble. But what about the kids who are staying out of trouble and doing well? Let's give them something."

That makes 6-year-old Jessica Richard happy. She rides her new blue bike to visit friends on her block in the Mid-City district. "The pedals are cool," she noted with a bright smile.

Her friend Carlton Coleman, also 6, said his new wheels recently helped him escape an unleashed dog in his Crenshaw neighborhood. "I thought he was going to bite me," Carlton said.

Both youngsters attend the private Science of Mind Center School in the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood, where assistant director Renee Wilcots, whose son received a bike, praised the program. "I think this teaches them that it pays to be diligent, that it does pay to give a little extra effort," she said.

Youngsters who take classes at the Kaos Network/Video 3333, a Leimert Park arts and media center, also received bicycles. Ben Caldwell, the center coordinator, said: "The best way for me to explain it was to see the smiles on the kids' faces."

The gifts come with a serious side. Special attention is paid to riding safely, securely locking up bikes and the importance of wearing helmets.

For university-level SCI-Arc students, bicycle-building is one of a series of projects that Wilson uses to teach about function, beauty, history and social need. Many say they look forward to learning Wilson's hands-on craftsmanship as an antidote to the theoretical side of architecture and urban planning.

His recent assignments have included asking students to make Shaker-style furniture and leather shoes fitted to their own feet. A few years ago, Wilson's students made upholstered furniture inspired by Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion--a lot of big and bright Naugahyde chairs were the result.

The bicycle projects began, Wilson recalled, when he was fixing his daughter's tricycle one day and realized that such work could teach welding, architectural principles and much more.

"I try to take a commonplace object and use it as a format for education," said Wilson, 42, who has taught at SCI-Arc for nine years. "You realize there is so much more to these things we surround ourselves with than meets the eye."

Lee Walcott, managing director of the Ahmanson Foundation, said Wilson's work allows "kids to take pride in something, to be able to mechanically take care of it and use their minds positively."


Today's centerpiece focuses on Cycles of Expression, a program based at the Southern California Institute of Architecture near Marina del Rey, which creates innovative bicycles and gives away two-wheelers to youngsters to reward academic achievement. For more information, call (310) 305-1839.

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