DULUTH (AP) -- When science student Heather Schmidt enrolled in a class called "Craftsmanship and the Human Spirit" at the College of St. Scholastica this spring, she never realized it would change the way she looked at her life.
Sure, she said, she knew she would learn about woodworking and how to craft beautiful objects from wood.
And she knew that she would be reading and writing a lot, mostly about spirituality and the human spirit.
But she thought that she'd be studying what other people thought about spirituality -- she never imagined that she would be asked to look deep into her own heart and find meaning there.
"I didn't realize at first that the class was designed for learning and understanding the spirituality of ourselves," she said.
But it was, said Jay Newcomb and Molly Weyrens, who taught the class.
"Woodworking is a metaphor for how we live our lives," said Newcomb, a master woodworker who is also the service learning coordinator on campus. "Working with wood helps us slow down and pay attention to ourselves, to the spirituality of our daily lives."
On this day, it didn't look like anything was in slow motion in the classroom where the students were completing their woodworking projects.
On the contrary, it was a beehive of activity. The students were sanding, measuring, sawing and drilling away, putting the finishing touches on the recycled redwood boards they were crafting into benches and planters that would be given to the Women's Coalition.
There was a lot of laughter in that class, too, as well as intense concentration on the matters at hand.
"There's so much going on here," said Weyrens, as she gestured to the busy classroom.
Weyrens, who is a campus minister at St. Scholastica, said on the one hand, the students are required to focus on the craft of working with wood. Learning to use hand tools like mallets and saws, measuring tapes and chisels as part of the process of turning the boards from Duluth timber into sturdy benches and planters.
But the students also had to read and write, a lot. Not only did the class require reading two books dealing with the relationships between spirituality and work, they also had to write a paper each week on their reading, as well as keep a journal throughout the class.
The result has been an intensely personal experience that has opened the hearts of many of the students, Weyrens said.
"They've had real struggles with who they are and what they want to do with their lives," she said.
But that's the point of the class.
"This class is a chance to stop and reflect on how they want to be in their lives," Newcomb said.
"It's taking the time to talk about the passion you have for what you do, who you are, and what you value," Weyrens said.
The students agreed. The class has been an unexpected and extraordinary experience for them, they said.
"We learned what we really want, who we are, and how our life affects others," Schmidt said. "I learned I'm a person who needs to be very centered, otherwise I feel something is very wrong. I need to have people around me that center me."
"You never would think you could combine a philosophical perspective with woodworking." said Mariah Kolb, who also discovered that working with wood centered her.
The class was developed by Bob Brenning, a professor of religion at the college.
Brenning, who died unexpectedly last summer, was a craftsperson himself and felt strongly that there's a connection between creating with the hands and the satisfaction of the spirit, Weyrens said.
Newcomb and Brenning collaborated in that first class, she said, although both had different approaches to working with wood. While Newcomb loves traditional hand tools, Brenning adored power saws. They constantly joked about the different approaches, she said, although both seem to work equally well.
The focus on spirituality asks the students to look at "what is the fire that burns within, and how can they make that come alive," she said. "We also want them to ask 'What grounds me? How is that connected to church and community?"'
Alec Nelson, a science student and the only male in the class, said he learned a lot about himself, too.
"I learned that I was not as patient as I thought I was," he said. "So I learned patience with tasks and chores and things like that. I have an easier time accepting failure and imperfections now. I'm going to open myself to everything."
Or, as Newcomb put it, "This class has worked marvelously."
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