If you’re looking for hands-on learning opportunities in advanced manufacturing, Knoxville Community School District is the place to be. Veteran applied science educator Sean Sanger has developed a strong manufacturing program for his students at Knoxville, partnering with local businesses for high-quality work-based learning experiences and purposeful real-world projects.


One particular business partnership has proven to be a successful one for Sanger’s students at Knoxville. Through their relationship with Weiler, an asphalt and forestry equipment manufacturing company, enriched opportunities for skill development and career exploration have grown.

“We couldn’t do this without the businesses in the community like Weiler,” Sanger said. “Through them, we’ve received funding for new equipment and opportunities for students to connect and learn from them.”

mentor and mentee
The partnership between Knoxville and Weiler has provided opportunities for work-based learning.

Weiler has provided funding to support the expansion of Knoxville’s manufacturing equipment and training capabilities. Equipment purchases like a plasma table, air compressor, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) mill and more were supported by Weiler and offer opportunities for students to learn on similar machines and technology to what is used in the industry.

“Providing students with access to the latest technology in manufacturing is important for training the future workforce,” said Cale Hutchings, applied sciences consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “Weiler has helped provide equipment to students that mimics their own operations. The relationship between Weiler and Knoxville is a great example of what a quality partnership between a business and school district can look like.”

Through its partnership with Weiler, Knoxville has been able to provide students with high-value work-based learning experiences such as job shadows, internships, worksite tours and guest presentations.

“Many students look forward to April, when a lot of our job shadows at Weiler occur,” Sanger said. “Juniors in the manufacturing class typically job shadow two to three days per week and if they return to the program as seniors, they have a possibility of longer job shadow opportunities to gain more experience.”

Former Knoxville student Nate Crane, 20, remembers his job shadow experience with Weiler during his senior year and how it led to other opportunities to explore his career pathway and gain experience.

“I shadowed two engineers building prototypes,” he said. “After the semester ended, I was offered a full-time internship during the summer and have returned every summer since then. During these internships, I feel like a normal employee. I work on prototypes, read blueprints and put things together. It’s been a good experience.”

Crane is currently a second-year student at Des Moines Area Community College and will be transferring to Iowa State University next fall to pursue his degree in engineering. He believes his internships with Weiler and the classroom preparation with Sanger have greatly benefited his development.

“Through this process, I learned about the importance of teamwork and getting a project done on time,” he said. “Along with technical skills like drafting, working with your hands and knowing what the equipment does, the biggest skill I’ve learned is communication.”

Opportunities for quality learning experiences and skill development are a priority for Knoxville’s manufacturing program, and Sanger has continued to expand their capabilities. As a result, the program has also developed a school-based enterprise, which allows students to run a business-like venture and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-world projects.

angel wings statue
The angel wings statue project was a favorite of Knoxville manufacturing school-based enterprise.

The manufacturing school-based enterprise has permitted students to make signs, statues and other products for their school and community. Through this initiative, students gain valuable professional experience like meeting with customers, developing proposals and budgets, creating design plans, working with subcontractors and presenting final products.

“When Knoxville added a new middle school, our school-based enterprise designed signs for the building,” Sanger said. “It was a chance for students to come up with ideas, present them to the school board and superintendent and collaborate with a design and architectural firm.”

Weiler has contributed several small projects for Knoxville’s school-based enterprise. These projects not only provide valuable experience for students but also impact the community.

“We want to contribute to the local community,” said Matt Patterson, director of operations at Weiler. “These small projects fit really well with Knoxville High School’s work. They can work on the project while developing their skill sets, and we can help out in a mentorship role. Together, we can give back to the community.”

Recent projects for Knoxville’s school-based enterprise have included a cancer ribbon statue with angel wings for the local hospital and a butterfly statue for the town’s garden club.

“I really liked the cancer ribbon with angel wings wrapped around it,” said 17-year-old Knoxville junior Jalin Johnson. “It was fun to work as a group on the project. We learned a lot about working as a team and problem solving.”

Additionally, the team works each year with Chariton Community School District’s high school to create two trophies for Weiler’s sponsored night at the Knoxville Raceway, which draws in spectators from across the nation and beyond. The students of the two schools work together to design and pitch trophy concepts for the event. Weiler hosts the students during these initial stages, providing brainstorming opportunities, critical feedback and an onsite tour of their manufacturing facility. Knoxville and Chariton students collaborate and continue to communicate with each other throughout the manufacturing process to create their half of the trophy and make everything work.

“The collaboration results have been excellent,” Sanger said. “Each school being responsible for half of each trophy means students need to pay careful attention to tolerances and any design updates.”

As for Weiler, they are pleased with results and the relationships they’ve made with local students. The partnership with Knoxville not only allows them to contribute to their community, but it also provides them with the opportunity to promote their industry and introduce themselves to the future workforce.

“Making those connections are important,” Patterson said. “We want to promote what we’re about as a company and have them understand where we’re headed. Getting students excited about our company’s culture and what we can offer as an employer can help them find the right fit and thrive as a long-term employee.”

A strong partnership like Knoxville and Weiler’s can be replicated in other towns and school districts – when both sides are invested.

“You need to have the right people in the mix who are passionate about providing these experiences for students,” Patterson said. “It’s the secret sauce to what makes it work. With myself and Sean, we’ve been able to get somewhere and find success for both of us.”