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In his Monticello High School engineering class, none of Eric Bredder's students seem to care that their workspace smells like gasoline. All of the students are ensconced in an individual project that they dreamed up and pulled together with little input. That’s just how Bredder wants it.

“I always have projects of my own going on and I want that for the kids here,” he said. “I have incredible support to do that from Albemarle County schools, from the top down.”

The gas smell emanated from a tired push mower that a group of students were working to turn into a go-kart. In the midst of taking the engine out of the mower frame, someone forgot to check whether there was gas in the tank. Small lessons sometimes precede bigger ones.

“They are going to learn to fix the mower engines and learn to weld this semester,” Bredder said. “That’s the plan for those guys.”

Across the room, senior Jacob Robb and sophomore Jeffrey John were working on a cardboard mockup and a computer-assisted design file of a fully automated chicken house. A light sensor on the outside of the structure will trigger an electric motor, which in turn will raise and lower a draw bridge to let the chickens out at first light and shut them in when it gets dark. The idea struck the pair because, John said, he is tired of waking extra early to let his birds out and to refill their food and water.

“I have chickens and it is a pain to get up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to do all that,” John said. He said the design eventually will include automatic feeders made of five-gallon buckets and solar panels to run the sensors and bridge motor.

The classes are part of a wider effort in Albemarle public schools to encourage self-directed lessons and entrepreneurial thinking.

“The idea is to get the kids thinking not just about how to build something, but how that can go out and fit into the world,” Bredder said. “I don’t particularly invest myself in telling a kid, ‘We are going to do this as a business.’ I don’t have a problem with that … but I am interested in education as a social component of the world.”

Read Aaron Richardson's entire Charlottesville Tomorrow story.