Editor’s Note: This post comes from Casey Shea, who teaches math and a “Project: Make” class at Analy High School in Sebastopol, California. Casey and Analy High coordinated closely with Dale Dougherty and Maker Media in 2011-12 and joined efforts to create the first Project: Make class, which took place on-site at our offices (then O’Reilly, now Maker Media.) When Casey re-discovered the unused, dusty old shop space at Analy, he shifted back to campus for 2012-13 and joined our first cohort of Makerspace schools.
When I started teaching a dozen years ago, a popular class for freshmen included introductory studies in CAD skills, electronics, rocketry and robotics. Following this survey course, students could progress to more advanced courses in pre-engineering and metalworking. I was vaguely aware of the class when I saw rockets being launched in the football field or battle bot demonstrations in the quad, but mostly the class and its inner workings remained a mystery to me and, I suspect, most of my colleagues. Tragically, the man who taught the course fell seriously ill and was unable to continue teaching. With no one able to replace him, the rockets stopped launching, the bots stopped battling and the shop was essentially shuttered.
Several years later, when the opportunity to start a new class in conjunction with the creative powerhouses at Make arose, I found myself wandering through the old Tech Lab, searching through dusty piles of components, tools and equipment to use in the new endeavor.
The old Tech Lab in its past state (pre-2012)
Great examples from textbooks, lesson plans, rubrics and old projects emerged, sparking ideas for me, but also exemplifying the pendulum effect so common in education. After a decade of focusing on preparing all students for a university education, often at the expense of hands-on classes, the value of making things seemed to be coming back.
Many factors make this swing of the pendulum look a little different than a decade ago. A symphony of voices are calling for changes in education to better prepare students for the changing economic landscape brought on by the global economy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman references this in his latest article, “Need a Job? Invent It.” The mix of skills needed and used in the 21st century shop class attracts students from all academic levels, changing the image of traditional high school shop classes. Technological advances have brought the cost of rapid-prototyping machinery into reach; the availability of free and open-source software mostly eliminates the need for expensive upgrades every few years; and inexpensive raw materials are readily available for use in schools. This is undoubtedly the right thing to do for students.
The newly renovated shop, now in use in 2012-2013.
Over the last couple of years of working on this project, I have come to appreciate the implications of three particular modern tools in transforming an entire school, not just an old shop. These tools not only expose students to an array of design and making skills and produce eye-catching results in a relatively short time, but their presence and use in schools can also engage the faculty and staff in creatively upgrading many areas of a typical campus. As an added bonus, two of these tools provide an added benefit sure to sway skeptical administrators, they can actually save money!!! (That’ll get their attention!)
In reverse order of practicality, here are my top three tools for a high school makerspace:
Transformative Tool Number 3: The 3D Printer
My third choice in practicality would be the first choice if judged in terms of curiosity and interest. Many mass media stories have made the general public aware of 3D printers, causing many to predict that they will become common household fixtures in the near future. There is no doubt that watching an object emerge from a 3D printer is a captivating experience, and there are brilliant web-based apps like Autodesk’s free 123D Make that my students have used to design parts for their projects, but designing one’s own practical object with any degree of precision requires some facility with 3D software and the beefy hardware to run it. I hope to ramp up the design skills next year so that all students will produce original and practical 3D printed objects, but as of now, many of the projects coming out of the 3D printer are downloaded from Thingiverse – customizable, but not necessarily original.
We also have 3D Printing Thursdays once per week in our library, and the 3D printer has proven to have magnetic powers as an attention grabber and a powerful hook for students! The 3D printer sits on a table near the entrance, and any students are allowed to use it. Some files are pre-loaded onto the SD card, or students can search for ideas on Thingiverse. Phone cases are a big hit! While some students want to print something of their own, others are just content to watch. A crowd of teenage boys regularly gathers in the library, happily collaborating to decide what to print, and then stays there, enamored as the 3D printer comes to life. Make’s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing highlights the variety of models available.
Coming soon – my #2 and #1 tools (and more!)