Hillel Posner

Andreas KaiserIn our first virtual teacher meetup, about half of our pilot schools joined a standing-room-only crowd on Google Hangouts, while others followed along on YouTube. You can watch our archive of the hangout here. Pittsburg High School was the second school we visited in the first of our onscreen road trips to get acquainted with the MENTOR Makerspace Pilot Schools for the 2012-13 year. Last week, we shared David Otten’s story of The Athenian School, a private school in Danville. This week, we pick up the video just before the 21-minute mark to visit the other school covered in the hangout: Pittsburg High School. Andreas Kaiser (left) and Hillel Posner (right) introduce the making they are doing with students there, and besides recapping what was covered in the Hangout, below we also cover some of what they showed us when we went to visit them during the last week of school last year.

Pittsburg High School started on the path towards “making” many years ago, when Andreas was teaching math and started an afterschool club to get kids involved in LEGO robotics, while in his math classes they built house models. He started this effort because he wanted them to experience the kinds of things that he enjoyed in high school and in college. Eventually he was able to persuade his administration to take the plunge and start a computer-aided design course, later adding an architectural design and a robotics class. In those first few years, he and his students were jammed into a portable classroom, without a lot of elbow room to work on their projects. But Pittsburg High School recently moved to a brand-new building in which both Andreas and Hillel enjoy ample room for their students and their projects. Hillel is the woodshop teacher, and he and Andreas have worked together to create an introduction to Makerspace course.

Let’s take a quick peek at Andreas’ classroom…

Left side of Andreas' classroom: banks of PCs  

Andreas’ classroom has banks of computers at the front of the class, and in the back he has a shop with tables and storage, including a great accumulation of repurposable items that he’s collected over the last few years. He says his classrooms are very much a work in progress. In one class he has 40 students, so one challenge he faces is how to manage a class that large, when so many students are working at different paces and later even on different projects. he is also trying to find ways to organize the shop so that it can be almost self-sufficient, meaning that students know how to use what’s back there and how to put away things once they’re done with them. He got a 3-D printer a few years ago, and he’s looking forward to adding an Othercutter to his shop.

One way that the two teachers collaborate, for example, is having the students design furniture in 3-D using SolidWorks, printing out small prototypes using the 3-D printer, then going over to the CNC to cut out the full-size version. Hillel has a 4×8-foot CNC router with a vacuum head. Hillel’s students created this rocket-shaped shelving unit using Autodesk’s 123D Make.


This year Andreas has a couple of large projects–Balsa wood bridges and gliders–that he and his students will pursue through the MESA program. MESA stands for “Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement,” and statewide it is run by the Office of the President of the University of California, but other states have their own program. (MENTOR Makerspace plans to partner with MESA as we add 1000 high schools to our network.)  After designing their MESA projects on the computer and realizing them through advanced fabrication tools, in the next semester, after the students have gotten the hang of making things, they will work on projects of their own design.

   Two projects in the back of the shop: a disassembled electric scooter and a kid’s PowerWheels toy vehicle. Students were troubleshooting and repairing them. 

Many if not most of Hillel’s woodshop students start the year without being able to read a ruler, to add and subtract fractions, or to use a computer. For kids who already have the skills, they can take on an open-ended challenge such as “design a board game.” Instead, Hillel feels that a more systematic approach–that is, taking small steps to get them used to the tools and the making mindset over the course of a semester or year–yields more success. Hillel tries to find that happy medium: where the most students can succeed, without stifling those who are ready for more personalized and creative project challenges.

Hillel noted that in his decade of teaching woodshop (including CNC and laser cutting), in classes of 30-40 students he will see just two or three students who get past the basics to begin to realize the creative potential of the advanced tools available to them. One goal that Hillel and Andreas have this year is to design their courses in a way that gives all of their students an opportunity to experience using these higher-end tools. (Pittsburg HIgh School’s laser cutter, pictured above, benefits from the natural ventilation offered by the easy access to a large, roll-up loading dock door that faces onto the automotive program housed between the classrooms of Hillel and Andreas.)

To give an example of this more deliberate approach, Hillel described how the basic drafting exercise, using triangles and a T-square on paper. You can find these kinds of exercises in many drafting textbooks. In doing this, they are learning basic skills such as measurement and drawing. From there they go to the computer and render it in 2D graphics. Then they go to SketchUp to represent their designs in 3D. Finally, they take those images to the woodshop and manufacture on the CNC and laser cutter. By the end of the semester the students would be making a simple deskplate with their name on it.

During the Hangout, David from Athenian chimed in to suggest that instead of staying ahead of every new piece of technology, learning new software programs etc., that a teacher should feel comfortable saying, “Here is something new I have not used before, and you might not have either. Let’s learn to use it together.” This changes the role of the teacher from the purveyor of all information, to one who provides the space and the tools, and allows the students to do what they do naturally: explore and learn. Some students pop up to become “peer mentors”, either because they’ve used a similar tool before or because they are just very excited to learn something new and pass on their knowledge to others. Andreas agreed that this is a rewarding approach when you have advanced students who can step up into that role. At Pittsburg, Hillel has identified students to work as teaching assistants after they have succeeded in a beginning class, where they help both with instruction and with organizing tools. These TAs handle the day-to-day tasks. Andreas took this bit of advice from Hillel and for every class of 40, he always finds four students to play this kind of leadership role.

One of the class projects is a cutting board. local gift shops sell the finished cutting boards , and all proceeds support the woodshop at Pittsburg High School.




 Eye protection is tucked away in a tidy safety goggle cubby.





Hillel’s training checklist provides extra assurance that the students really know the tool before they use it on their own.









Hillel’s wood sample board (left), and the costs that students use to budget for their projects (right). The students are allotted a spending allowance within the funding for the class.

 Special projects





When working with physical things, why not use the item itself on the explanatory materials? On the left, Hillel created a sample board so that students could use the correct sandpaper grit for any given job.




Finally, I really appreciated simple signs scattered throughout the room, identifying each machine within Hillel’s woodshop, along with its intended use: i.e. what a skilled woodworker would use that machine to accomplish, plus a few critical safety guidelines students can review before they begin to use the tool. As we develop safety materials for Makerspace, I’m hoping we can generate a good standard set of signs like these.

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