New Shop Class Technologies Prevent Lost Opportunities

The shop class of yesteryear had been a staple in many high schools across the country. In these courses, students learned tool and machinery operations along with skills in safety, collaboration, and communication. Still, people perceived shop class as a dumping ground for students unable to achieve in math, science, and other academic skills. The stigma often turned away those considered academically successful. That label and the push to prepare students for college helped bring about the demise of the shop class, leaving those who did well and enjoyed shop to suffer. Now these students were without opportunities that could have allowed them to see their potential in manufacturing or design. Even with the emphasis of college readiness courses, their futures showed little improvement since many would not even consider post-secondary education. The scope of their opportunities narrowed.

With more value being placed on college readiness, schools continue to cut shop programs or completely eliminate them. Retiring shop teachers are not replaced, and few colleges offer courses in how to teach shop. What once housed lathes and mills are now expansive storage rooms for dusty textbooks. If students are not given the chance to learn in shop, will they still discover a career path that is right for them? Or will they be another statistic in the country's unemployment rate?

Shop class offers ample opportunities for students to learn skills necessary for success in our current world: collaboration, communication, problem solving, and creativity. Above all, students with skills in design, production and manufacturing are what many businesses need to keep the U.S. economy afloat. Aerospace and defense companies Boeing and Northrop Grumman recently reported that they have a high demand for people with these skills. Industries across the United States echo their manpower shortfalls.

To help rectify this issue, some companies and trade organizations are approaching school districts directly. Some invest in a partnership with other community groups to fund shop programs (and sometimes new facilities). Business leaders are slowly recognizing how to fill empty positions with skilled workers: train students for work related to their enterprise. The opportunities that had once been stripped away are making a return to students. As new shop classes emerge and the lingering few that have managed to survive continue to enroll students, shop classes are adapting to recent developments in technology.

First, shop classes have updated their names. Now they go by names such as Industrial Arts or Applied Academics and Technology. As in the past, they still offer lessons in electricity, welding, plumbing, woodworking, small engines, and auto mechanics. Hands-on activities with real-world applications strengthen students' abilities to get quality jobs with livable wages in design, production and repair; plus they often leave with the skills to fix things in their own homes.

Even though trades use many of the same skills as they did 50 years ago, shop classes integrate new technologies as they become available. YouTube and e-files enhance teachers' lessons. Now, students can watch and re-watch demonstrations on-line. Schools with one-to-one technology have manuals, plans, and diagrams readily available. Likewise, developments in software continuously impact vocational training programs. Computer-assisted design (CAD) is at a new level. Programs like SolidWorks provide a platform for students to create 3D drawings.

Change in an industry influences change in shop courses too. For example, auto mechanics courses prepare students to work on the same kind of vehicles we currently drive. That means hybrid vehicles and vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells must be available for students. If a real vehicle is not available, simulation devices allow instructors to program them for specific problems, allowing the students to collaborate on diagnosing the issue. Diagnostic equipment has changed, too, and students are learning more about the green technologies under the hoods.

Innovations influence students to enroll in shop classes. Kids hear the shop class has a water jet cutter like West Coast Choppers, and everybody wants in on the action of cutting metal with water that is under high pressure. Suddenly, students are excited to learn and use the math needed to program the machine.

3D printers entice students to shop class as well. Students at Analy High School in Sebastopol, California, extend the applications of the 3D printer to the business world. Their shop program recognized cross-curricular possibilities and puts them into action. Students complete projects that include a business pitch, market analysis and cost of production. This is all in addition to creating a prototype.

Students delight in making a real product. One year at Analy High School, students used their skills to create holiday decorations which they sold to earn about $1,000. They also collaborated with a local microbrewery to produce coasters. These are outstanding accomplishments for a school that had been using the shop as a storage facility. The drastic change came with the help of an outside influence: Make magazine. DIY projects fill their periodical, and when Make staff discovered no shop class existed at the high school, they invited students to learn about 3D printing at a location away from the high school. More and more students enrolled in the extracurricular program until Make ran out of room for everyone. Before another student lost an opportunity to discover his/her mechanical talents, Make donated a 3D printer to the school, and the school reopened its shop class (Robinson).

Sometimes, however, a school district may want to expose students to 3D printers, robotics, and electronics, but the district may not have a location that can accommodate a shop. One business has found a way to reach out to schools with this predicament. TechShop serves ten major cities across the U.S. Members of all ages belong to TechShop; they go to these locations to create prototypes of their ideas and for training on new technologies. At TechShop, members have access to a workspace, tools, and staff that can help develop one's ideas. TechShop believes in the power of hands-on learning. They provide a safe setting that inspires creativity and encourages learning from failure.

TechShop has teamed with Fujitsu, a company specializing in information and technology products and services, to create a mobile "makerspace": TechShop Inside! Powered by Fujitsu. Picture a semi hauling an enclosed 24-foot aluminum trailer with a shop class inside. Some of the contents can be removed from the trailer to increase the amount of workspace needed for a class; tabletops even attach to the outside of the trailer. When TechShop Inside! Powered by Fujitsu visits a school, they expose students to both the tools and processes that are industry standard. Students learn modern fabrication through welding, laser cutting, and 3D printing. Laptops and tablets give students the ability to experiment with CAD design. So many possibilities exist with this mobile workspace!

Keeping shop in schools will help students realize their potential. The more opportunities they are given in school, the better their chances will be at finding a career path they love. Along with this, it also introduces to them postsecondary education opportunities (e.g., trade schools or apprenticeships) that they may have not been aware of in the past. In modern shop, students will learn skills that will benefit their futures at home and in the workplace.