David OttenIn 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. This was the first of our onscreen road trips to get acquainted with the MENTOR Makerspace Pilot Schools for the 2012-13 year. Next week, Andreas Kaiser and Hillel Posner will introduce the making they are doing with students at Pittsburg High School. This week, David Otten shares the story of The Athenian School, a private school in Danville.

Athenian has had a number of making programs for quite a few years– including a handful of making-heavy classes, a robotics program, and an aviation project–but more recently they’ve been bringing them together in a more coherent whole called The Makers Studio, funded in part by Athenian Parent Association’s fundraising efforts.

About ten years ago Athenian added a new space adjacent to the old barn, and now Athenian enjoys an ample 60 foot x 40 foot workspace. What began as three distinct shops for three different programs was redesigned two summers ago to integrate metal shaping, woodworking, welding, and materials more seamlessly. As part of the rehaul, the Athenian Parent Association sponsored two machines that teacher David Otten appreciates greatly for how much they open up the range of projects the kids can do — a laser cutter and a SawStop table saw. A third donor-sponsored addition was added this summer – a Makerbot Replicator 3D printer.


laser cutter samples laser cutter samples

The Makers Studio supports nine Athenian programs/classes:

  • Applied Science and Engineering classes
  • “The Art and Science of Making” class
  • Athenian Engineering Collective (AEC)
  • FIRST Robotics
  • “Spirit of Athenian” Airplane Project
  • General Science Classes (Conceptual Physics: Rocket Boxes; Chemistry: Valence electron models; Biology and Environmental Science: Quadrangles)
  • Electric Car conversion
  • Applied Science Club
  • Middle school “Innovation and Design Thinking” class (new this year)
  • …and they use it to make science department equipment too!

The Applied Science class  begins with a brief introduction to engineering, including that old favorite: the marshmallow tower.  Then the students move on to an electronics unit, including learning to solder. They eventually move onto microcontrollers, ending the term by building a line-following robot. In the second semester, they are free to invent something, anything, using the skills the acquired over the first few months in the course.

First Semester:

  • Ongoing self-guided review and integration of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology
  • Fundamentals of creative problem solving, including up to four small-scale projects (Electric vehicle, Appliance dissection, microcontroller line-follower, more?)
  • Augmenting your engineering toolkit (engineering drawing and CAD, rapid prototyping, hand tools, some machining/woodworking/metalworking, soldering and circuit layout, microprocessor use and programming, etc.)
  • Starting your final project

Second Semester:

  • Main phase of final project
  • Interim assessments
  • Final project presentation and demonstration (Athenian Faire and Maker Faire Bay Area)


The Athenian Engineering Collective (AEC) had been focused primarily on robotics, and was founded around the studnts’ desire to add a FIRST robotics team to the school. Last year they turned their attention to “giving back”, and they extended their scope to do outreach to inspire younger students in their community to love engineering.

Thirty-one fifth-graders took workshops exposing skills the AEC members use in their robotics design work, such as: welding, milling, lathe, laser cutter, and design software.

The AEC members really enjoyed getting a chance to teach what the knew to the younger kids, like how to use the machines and how to drive the robots. The AEC members also came up with a clever cardboard design (pictured right, and download the PDF file), which the younger students then assembled and programmed to complete a simple task.

Line Follower construction

Giving more details about the line follower, David notes:  In the file (preview, right, and download the PDF file) cuts are black, scores in red. Students used standard GM8 motors, and they are folded up into the design so no external mounting is needed. In this tab-and-slot design, students tape tabs flat against the underside. Small rectangles are for the QRD1114 photodetectors. There are no front wheels but the small hole houses a nylon screw with two nuts sandwiching the cardboard to allow for fine tuning the detector distance from the driving surface. The chassis rides on the upside-down low-friction screw.  Many improvements to be made, but about 60 students have used this version pretty easily.

The AEC members gave the fifth-graders a pre-written program which they then helped them modify to execute exactly what they wanted to. David noted that in hacker culture more generally,  there is a tradition of starting with something pre-existing and modifying it, and so he advocates this as a solid instructional strategy–not just in programming but in other domains that have yet to take this approach.

The “Spirit of Athenian” airplane project is one of Athenian’s most popular offerings. A local benefactor named Marsh, who spent his career in aeronautics, wanted more young people to fall in love with aviation, and so he started this program with a large donation (facility, equipment, and volunteer time). It has proved so popular among the students, it now gets a good deal of support from the administration as well. It is fully funded and has in the neighborhood of 90 students participating. When the airplane is finished there is a lottery among the students who spent the most hours building the airplane to figure out who are the lucky few who get to do a test drive of it up in the air with one of the instructors.

A fully functioning shop space enables students to take on other ambitious projects, like the electric car conversion project. Athenian students designed and fabricated a motor mount so that they could replace the gas motor with an electric one and fit it within the existing chassis. It’s a good illustration of the power of using digital design tools, in this case SolidWorks, to make the modifications necessary to realize an ambitious vision. Beyond designing (1st and 2nd picture below) and machining it (seen in the top image at the start of the post), they also prototyped it using cardboard to make sure that their design would be accommodated within the space constraints of their existing engine.


The tools Athenian has include a laser cutter, mill, two lathes, three drill presses, brake, shear, belt sander, grinder, TIG and MIG welders, oxy-acetylene, table saw, two band saws, air compressor, dust collection, an electronics bench, 3D printer, and much more. Over the coming years, they hope to add a digital oscilloscope, another 3D printer, panel saw, planar / joiner, router table, casting/forging, and vacuum molding.


David imagines that this space can eventually support the entire school, not just the science and engineering programs. Future interdepartmental connections he hopes to make include:

  • Computer or research lab model
  • Fine arts (set design, costume design)
  • Humanities (ritual drum-making, historical clothing)
  • Textiles and sewing
  • Science and Culture of Cooking
  • Lost Art of Living (a unique course introducing survival skills, or all the things that people knew how to do two or three centuries ago: how to catch food, prepare meat, sew clothing, make failure, but we’ve lost those skills. Athenian students will be the ones to survive a global catastrophe!)

As David began to research what the shop should look like a few years ago he embarked on a tour of about 15 other shop spaces in educational settings. I asked him to cite a few that he thought were especially interesting:

  • UC Berkeley Mechanical Engineering Shop
  • UC Berkeley Physics Shop
  • Laney College Woodworking
  • Laney College Metal Shop
  • Laney College Carpentry
  • The Exploratorium
  • The Crucible
  • TechShop in San Francisco
  • TechShop in San Jose

From his tour, he developed a list of best practices to help guide the layout of the shop. As he shared with the group, “Moving a mill or lathe is no easy feat, so you want to make sure you get it right on the first or second try.” (So plan ahead!)

In listening to David, we realized that a lot of the evolution of Athenian’s Makers Studio program was driven by the interests of the students, responding to things that they wanted to have happen on campus and expanding to satisfy those needs. It’s a sure-fire strategy for success.

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3 Responses to Pilot Profile: Athenian School’s Makers Studio–aviation, EVs, engineering evangelists

  1. [...] View post: Pilot Profile: Athenian School's Makers Studio–aviation, EVs … [...]

  2. [...] thinking curricula? When we visited with Bruce Hamren and David Otten at the Athenian School’s Makers Studio we received an exciting answer to our question. Simply put: maker and design thinking experiences [...]

  3. [...] they are told by their creators. The K-12 spaces that we have visited are equally as diverse: the Makers Studio at the Athenian School, the i-Lab at the Nueva School, The Boston ArtScience Prize at Cloud Place, and Brightworks (a [...]