Getting their hands dirty: Students try out heavy equipment in Hastings

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Extreme Sandbox began as a recreation center that turned work machines into play.

Instead of swinging at fastballs in a batting cage simulator or circling the go-cart track, folks could blow off steam at the controls of a bulldozer or wheel loader.

But the 10-acre "sandbox" in Hastings has gained popularity as a training ground for students who might be interested in a career in the construction industry.

April 25, a group of students from Warren High School in North Carolina took part in a Heavy Equipment Camp at Extreme Sandbox. Odessa Perry, career development coordinator, said the group is studying engineering and business. The trip was paid for by a grant from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

In 2014, the school revived their Warren County Science Engineering Mathematics and Aerospace Academy, which was established by NASA to provide students with practical applications.

"We try to offer the kids some hands-on activities," Perry said.

Randy Stenger, owner of Extreme Sandbox in Hastings, said they overlooked this potential demographic when they opened in 2012.

"The heavy equipment camps were definitely not part of our original business plan," he said. "They developed after the first couple of years after I heard from our equipment dealer that they were concerned about the pipeline of talent coming out of the high schools."

He entered into an agreement with Komatsu America Corp., which manufactures heavy equipment for a global market. They saw him on ABC's "Shark Tank" and realized that it would give students an opportunity they might not have otherwise.

Stenger and other employees guided the students through the steps at Tuesday's camp. The digging was followed by classroom instruction.

Peter Anderson is service manager for RMS Road Machinery & Supplies Co., who sell Komatsu equipment. He said he hoped trying out the machines might inspire more young people to consider a career as a diesel technician.

"Skilled labor in the industry is hurting," Peterson said.

Warren student Maquashia Henderson, 16, operated a heavy earth mover under the supervision of Stenger.

"The goal is just to give students exposure to these non-traditional career paths through these hands-on experiential learning events," he said. "Ideally we inspire them to consider these great construction jobs and then they would go into trade schools after high school."

The experience seemed to have made an impression on classmate, James Collins.

"I was just interested in learning about the machines and how they work," the 17-year-old said. "I wasn't interested 'til I came here."