March 14, 2014 Updated: March 14, 2014 at 6:01 pm
Things don't always go as planned during real-time, experiential teaching. But that's part of the lesson, high school students at The Colorado Springs School found out this week during The Great Iron Pour of 2014.
After six hours of obstacles, including a furnace motor that burnt out, the school's experiment that takes place every four years and has become a time-honored tradition, finally got underway about 9 p.m. Thursday at the private pre-K-12 school in The Broadmoor neighborhood.
And then it became what students had been anticipating - a chance to experience how the individualistic pursuit of making metal art can become a well-choreographed team sport.
"Everybody had to pull together and manage all the variables and bring all the processes together in spite of the complications," said Hans Wolfe, chairman of the CSS art department.
That camaraderie is what draws artists to iron casting, he said.
"Iron is an industrial utilitarian material, but artists like it because they get to unite as a community."
To prepare for the fiery culmination of the project, 19 students spent the past three weeks studying the history of metal, the science involved and industry applications.
They also got their hands dirty.
They pummeled 1,025 pounds of old radiators, brake drums and stoves salvaged from scrap heaps into small shards.
They learned how to form wax and sand molds, weld a boiler, construct a flame thrower and repair a furnace capable of withstanding a temperature of 3,000 degrees.
The group became a unit, focused on a production that would give way to success for all.
"It's a lot of precise work that pulls students out of their comfort zones to get to experience something they normally wouldn't," said John Longo, an English teacher.
During Thursday's pour, students wore protective leather gear and rotated through stations. One team melted the iron chards in the roaring furnace that belched black smoke. They also fed it with coal-based fuel, maintained air flow and sloughed off slag.
Iron liquifies at a higher temperature - 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit - and is harder to work with than the more common bronze, said science teacher Sam Johnson.
Another group poured the molten liquid into molds held in sand. Some helped save the leftover wax from the molds by trapping it in boiling water.
Missteps can be costly.
"You can't afford to stumble and drop things, so it's very well rehearsed," Johnson said.
Despite the long day that started at 8 a.m. and ended about midnight, students were in awe of the centuries-old process.
"It was extremely mind-blowing," said India Lovaas, a freshman. "We've been reading all about it in books and hearing how people discovered iron. To actually do that was pretty amazing."
The beehive of activity finally gave way to new art. A hand, an anchor, a cross, a jellyfish, an abstract sculpture, a portion of a horse, a totem pole and others.
"It's a really interesting process, and we get to do everything ourselves," said Steliyan Todorov, a foreign exchange student from Bulgaria.
CSS is the only high school in the world to conduct an iron pour, Johnson said.
"We located a school in England that pours gate parts, but we're the only high school that does it as an art project," he said.
This is the fifth time since 1994 that CSS has done a pour. Because it's only offered every four years, the iron pour has become legendary.
Becka Jackson, a junior, said she heard about the seminar years before she got to high school and knew she wanted to be a part of it.
"I figured it would be really fun. It's just such a unique experience," she said. "But it's hard work."
The physical aspect appealed to Tristen Beck, a senior who fashioned a boiler out of a 33-gallon drum.
"It was fun. I spent the entire day welding, using blow torches and plasma torches," he said the day before the pour.
Freshman Jake Jackson said iron casting requires a lot of different skills.
"You have to imagine what your art will look like in iron," he said, "and it involves creativity and strength."
The iron pour is memorable, and like other CSS seminars, lends itself to valuable life lessons, said Tye Tutt, a 2008 graduate who participated in the 2006 iron pour.
"Those seminars were pivotal in shaping the way I react to changes in life," he said. "Stupid little things always happen."
The iron pour taught him that preparation is critical.
"It gave me a great base within my engineering career. Following the steps correctly in a process you've never seen work before results in everything coming together suddenly at the end," said Tutt, now a civil design engineer with Classic Consulting Engineers in Colorado Springs.
The current group of iron pourers would agree with that.
"It was a bit of a worry at the beginning, when the fan broke, but once we got started, it worked," said freshman Tim Read. "I had a blast."