It's For the Birds

by Kim Donegan

If you’re in the running world, you’ve probably heard of Shaun Donegan. (Even if you haven’t, this should be a good read!) While he may be one of the next best master’s challengers in the pipeline, he’s so much more than “just” a runner. His true passion (and job) is teaching. Shaun is affectionately known at Ballston Spa Middle School as “Mr. D” and is the teacher every kid wants for Technology when they reach 6th and/or 7th grade.

One of his recent projects has a cool story, as it involved the Village of Ballston Spa and their annual Birdhouse Festival.

     Shaun's daughters Tanner and Austin are in front of a Ballston Spa Birdhouse Display

Artist Mark Blech of the ASK foundation reached out to Shaun to see if he would be interested in being a part of the birdhouse program by building some of the birdhouses. He was intrigued and immediately thought it could be an interesting twist on his manufacturing unit, so the two met to discuss the project.

Mark said they needed 1,000 birdhouses. One thousand birdhouses! Normally it takes the small village task force from November to April to make that many, and it was getting harder and harder to find people able to put in the time. Mark was hoping to cut production time by enlisting the local schools as a technology project. Since teachers set their curriculum in advance and have a schedule to keep, there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. Shaun knew he would only have time to replace one unit with the birdhouse project, so he did what any good teacher would do: he asked his students what they thought!

Since the birdhouse program has been going on in the community for the last 4 years, most of the kids knew about it and were excited at the prospect of being a part of the legacy. They agreed to give up a unit: the 7th graders gave up the egg crash car project, and the 6th graders agreed to forgo building CO2 dragsters. The project would take up the entire shop and would be all-hands-on-deck, so he needed full agreement from the students, and he got it. He also secured the necessary pieces of equipment (i.e. extra saws) from the other tech teachers, so there would be no delays due to lack of resources.

With the student’s approval (and of course the school) Shaun got to work. He disassembled an existing birdhouse to back out everything he needed to reassemble it and map out and design the assembly line. He created all the jigs, determined the necessary amount of tools and equipment, and ran through the process himself to create individual jobs for each “worker” on the assembly line. After all, when your laborers are 11 and 12 years old, the process had to be seamless, easy to follow, and safe.

With the plan in place, he met with Mark and said he could commit to making 300 birdhouses in two weeks.

“That’s not possible.”

The thought of making 1/3 of the amount of birdhouses that usually take 6 months seemed unthinkable to Mark – especially for a group of unskilled pre-teens. But Shaun knew it could be done. Like Ransom Olds knew back in 1901 when he created and patented the assembly line, a manufacturing process allows for finished parts to be assembled in sequence and will automate and reduce the time needed to assemble a finished product. This wasn’t the first assembly line unit Shaun had taught a group of students – he’d been doing it for years down at Lansingburgh Middle School, and he knew he’d be able to crank them out.

Mark agreed to move forward and took care of ordering the wood, which was being donated by Curtis Lumber. The date was set for Curtis to drop off what was the equivalent of a 1/4 mile of wood. On delivery day, Shaun was surprised to see that not only did a giant Curtis Lumber truck show up at his shop door, but also the mayor of Ballston Spa, the president of Curtis Lumber, and a handful of other employees of the village – and of course the local news station. No pressure!

With a shop full of wood, it was time to get to work. There were 5 different groups of students spanning across the 6th and 7th grade. With 45-minute class periods, the total production time would be 19 hours. The students, like Mark, were skeptical that they could build 300 birdhouses in 2 weeks. After all, it took them two weeks to build one wooden top in the previous unit! It was the perfect way to teach the students about the benefits of mass production, Just In Time Manufacturing, and efficiency.

The project consisted of three phases:

  1. Selecting “workers” for each station and training them to do their “job”
  2. Cutting out the pieces
  3. Assembling the birdhouses

Day 1: Training. There were 10 physical workstations. Shaun went around the room performing each job so that the students could see every step of the process. In addition to the students doing the work, the assembly line needed “movers” (since there were no conveyor belts in the school shop), Quality Control personnel (to make sure each piece was cut correctly), Safety Managers (to ensure safety glasses were on and proper tool etiquette was being followed), Supervisors (to keep workers on task and collect feedback), and the cleanup crew (with that much wood there would be so much scrap that it would cause a major backup and safety concern if work stations weren’t cleaned up periodically.) Shaun allowed the students to request certain jobs, and ultimately “hired” them based on their interest, but also their skills and behavior. He then had the students run through the entire assembly line one station at a time so he could watch each worker do their job. Then they did it again, to make sure there were no mistakes or bottlenecks.

Day 2-3: Manufacturing the pieces. Each birdhouse has 7 parts. Every part would be identical, as they would be made using the same process, with the same material, even when a different worker (from a different class) completed their task. The “movers” would stack parts in the back of the shop…by the end of day three there were 2,100 pieces of wood filling up the back third of the classroom!

Day 4-5: Assembling the birdhouses. With all the pieces cut and stacked (ahead of schedule), it was time to retool the assembly line so the birdhouses could be put together. By now the students were fully on board, as they witnessed the completion of all 300 birdhouse pieces cut in just 2 days! Shaun re-trained the workers on their new task, using the jigs he made to make sure every birdhouse was assembled in the same way. After the first day, the kids were getting so good they had a competition to see which group could assemble their birdhouse the fastest – the winner was 1 min and 10 seconds!

The Quality Control managers had their work cut out for them as they made sure every birdhouse was plumb, level, and square, and the staples were applied safely and straight. A few got sent back, but ultimately in 2 more days, there were 300 fully assembled birdhouses in the back of the shop. (Actually, 330 – there was enough leftover material for more!)

Shaun called Mark to let him know they finished early, and he was ready to ship the birdhouses off (and get his classroom back.) Ultimately, they remained for a few days because it took some time to move up the pickup date, since no one thought they would be done in just 5 days.

The students were allowed to keep a birdhouse to decorate themselves (instead of waiting for the official rollout of the program) and about 40 took one home. The rest went to the village so that the community could pick them up to be decorated and returned for the display across town.

Shaun gave Mark a copy of the video he made, as well as the factory and system layout, and a copy of all the jigs to bring to other schools, with the hope that he could get all 1,000 made by students. Burnt Hills and Schuylerville agreed to participate (though they did not manufacture as many, or as fast as B Spa!)

In February, Mark came back and asked if Shaun could make some ready-to-assemble kits for the elementary schools to use to physically build the birdhouses before decorating them. It was the same set of parts, but this time they would need to pre-drill the holes, stamp each part, and put everything (including assembly instructions) into a bag. The process took longer, but they were still able to produce 150 in one week. Since it was a new semester, the students were all brand new and had to be trained. It was pretty cool when one day we picked up the girls from their daycare and there was one of the birdhouses sitting on the table – painted like a watermelon!

When all was said and done, 1,400 pre-made or ready-to-be-assembled birdhouse kits went out to the community. While we don’t know exactly how many were returned to be put on display, a walk around downtown Ballston Spa will show hundreds of painted birdhouses, all unique, and all beautiful.

Birdhouses may be “bought” back by the artist for a donation (unless you were on the assembly line crew, in which case Shaun negotiated a deal that they could get theirs back for free!) The birdhouses are made to be functional; however, they are made of pine, and completely untreated – so anyone who wants to keep theirs feeding birds for years to come will need to take the necessary steps to weatherize them or they will deteriorate and fade over time.

This 5-minute video captures the assembly line process from one of the middle school classes.

For more information on the free, community-based Birdhouse Program, check out this article from the Saratogian.

Annual Birdhouse Project Takes Flight in Ballston Spa

Birdhouse Program - Arts & Science Creating Community

Ballston Spa Birdhouse Festival returns June 11

This excerpt from the Times Union deals with the origin of this project

Started by artist and Ballston Spa resident Mark Blech and the nonprofit organization ASK, or Arts & Science Creating Community, the free program was founded as a way to foster community spirit and promote public arts endeavors. 

“I was looking for a way to engage in the community,” said Blech, a fine and commercial artist and woodworker who spent 30 years in the entertainment industry building and designing sets for movies and television. 

The village didn’t really have an arts program, said Blech, who fell in love with Ballston Spa and moved to the area several years ago. 

“I wanted to find a way that was accessible to people,” Blech said. “Giving a blank canvas is very daunting and there are a lot of expectations, but decorating a birdhouse is fun and they love seeing them all over the village.” 

If you want to view the birdhouses that line the streets of Ballston Spa, they will be up all summer for you to enjoy and the birds! It would make a fun day trip!

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