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Envisioning a Fabrication Laboratory at Acalanes High School

“We’re trying to make a dream a reality”

Dan Appel, Physics and Computer Science Teacher at Acalanes High School, stands in front of the Robotics workshop in his classroom. He hopes to help create a maker space called The Fab Lab which will draw upon teachers’ expertise in subject areas encompassing classes like Art, Engineering, Computer Science and Wood Tech.

A common theme arises when talking to teachers and administrators across the district: increasing student engagement. More than ever, educators are envisioning schools as spaces where students can connect with what they love in relevant and meaningful ways. When students are deeply engaged in learning, they tap into their own innate potential, form lasting connections, and become lifelong learners. Eric Shawn, principal of Acalanes, not only wants to create opportunities for “purposeful and meaningful engagement,” but to be “visionary about providing for students in the future.” When it comes to education, he’s interested in providing more than the basics—he wants to grow the next generation of “thinkers, designers, and engineers.” He sees value in creating pathways for students to follow in any subject area that take them from beginner to expert, relevant ones that capture students’ interests so much, they enter a positive psychological state called “Flow”—that’s the good feeling that comes with being so fully immersed in meaningful work that one enters a state of energized focus and loses all sense of time. When that happens, student excitement shows through in their academic classes and coursework. That’s the kind of engagement Shawn is looking for at Acalanes High School.

In no other area does this hold as much fresh excitement as the burgeoning maker program, a Fabrication Laboratory, that is beginning to be known as “The Fab Lab,” a place that marries cutting edge technology in computer science, digital art, physics, engineering, and robotics with traditional craftsmanship like woodshop, metal etching, studio art, and ceramics. Shawn sees The Fab Lab “as a place with pathways that can engage students deeply.” Spaces like this exist around the Bay Area and in several local high schools. He wants to bring this experience home to Acalanes. Making this vision a reality isn’t a far stretch. Acalanes already has the framework and equipment to make it happen; yet he sees the urgency in making this program relevant. “We have a unique space; in many places these labs are getting taken down and converted to classrooms.” He envisions a place where many kinds of students—future artists, woodworkers, designers, computer scientists, and engineers—can themselves envision the interconnectedness of these interests and develop relevant work experience.

Shawn has been working closely with Dan Appel, Physics and Computer Science Teacher at Acalanes High School, and Mike Pease, Wood Tech Teacher at Stanley Middle School, both instrumental in the launch of The Fab Lab. Together, they are evaluating the current conditions at both school sites and investigating what’s happening at other schools in the Bay Area. They recently visited Kennedy High School in Richmond to tour their maker space, which was generously gifted to them by Chevron. It not only serves the student body, but the community of Richmond at large, which has access at night and on weekends. A full-time staff member is always available to guide, advise, maintain, and repair the equipment. Appel calls it an “enviable set up” that many schools may not be able to fully replicate. But Stanley Middle School and Acalanes High School have their own promising spaces that with some hard work can provide the infrastructure to support such a vision. Stanley has a large woodshop and an established woodworking program that sees four-hundred 6th graders come through during WHEEL. Acalanes has a fully functioning woodshop with the ability to make everything from cutting boards to furniture. The current state of things, however, leaves much room for improvement. Revamping the workshop at Acalanes to function as a maker space will require a lot of work, like upgrading equipment, bridging the two programs, implementing curricular support, and boosting student interest.

One of the CNC machines in the Acalanes High School woodshop in need of a major upgrade.

Take the woodshop at Acalanes, which is the place where the most sophisticated parts of the program would live. Much of the existing equipment is twenty years old, with several machines relying on digital technology; but with technology reaching obsolescence within ten to fifteen years, the current software does not support the existing infrastructure. “In short, we can’t upgrade the machines,” Appel says. “We are at the limits of what we can do.” The process of improving the space requires taking a hard look at everything to determine what equipment is still relevant and what needs to be acquired. Much of the traditional woodworking tools will stand. Machines that depend on technology, however, require consideration. Two existing CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines are candidates for replacement because the software to support them no longer works. These are valuable machines that can function as milling machines, lathes, and routers, or perform tasks like sheet metal stamping. Other modern tools like 3D printers are useful and exciting, but they might take thirty minutes or more to print something, making individual class projects very time consuming. The big-ticket item worth acquiring, though, is a laser. Lasers are easy to use, giving students the ability to engage in high-interest design projects with fast results. With a laser, it might take two minutes to engrave a tumbler, etch onto painted metal, or carve images in wood. Achieving results quickly gives teachers the ability to reach more students and see more projects to completion in a shorter amount of time. Appel is looking at the Epilogue Laser, a model that appears in many maker spaces, including other local high schools; it also comes with a $25,000 price tag. Upgrading and acquiring relevant equipment such as this would help to raise the workshop to the standards of modern-day maker spaces, which is one of the main goals.

While creating a physical infrastructure to support the program is necessary, creating a strong bridge from the robust program at Stanley to the developing one at Acalanes is critical. So much about this process is alignment. Appel notes that at Acalanes, the “machinery is a big step up,” and he strongly believes that “we need to build from the skills that students are using at Stanley; but we are not elevating the experience at Acalanes,” he says. With only one section of woodshop currently offered at Acalanes and nothing that resembles what is happening in other maker spaces, he sees a missed opportunity.

Mike Pease, Wood Tech Teacher at Stanley and Acalanes, is aware of the interest decline once students get to high school. Currently, he is teaching one-hundred fifty kids at Stanley, and only seventeen at Acalanes. He hopes to see the woodshop program at Acalanes expand. With a presence on both campuses, he can be instrumental in creating a strong connection from Middle School to High School as the two schools grow the program. Wood Tech, beginning with the Chris Stearns era and currently headed up by Mike Pease, is a robust program where students first get an introduction to woodworking in 6th grade as part of the WHEEL (which includes Music, Robotics, Wood Tech, Language & Art). 7th graders can take Introduction to Wood Tech, where they learn fundamentals while making a Pinewood Derby car (complete with end-of-the-year race) and a toolbox. In 8th grade, students take Advanced Wood Tech. All 2nd semester 8th graders work with the high school woodworking students at Acalanes to make and donate a picnic table to the campus. This year, the high schoolers will be refinishing four Eagle Scout tables at Acalanes as well as making Adirondack chairs. Pease views woodworking not just as a class or a skill, but a craft—a true art form. He believes that one of the best ways to empower students is to teach them not only to make things by hand, but to use the equipment in a traditional woodshop. He says that “if kids are well trained, they can use any machine.” With his in-depth knowledge of woodworking as well as use and repair of the workshop equipment, he is helping students to create a solid and necessary foundation in traditional woodshop.

Making the jump from woodshop to more technical classes will require curricular support, though. The woodshop at Stanley has a CNC machine, for example, but it doesn’t fit in the curriculum, and there is nothing in place to require its use. In a traditional woodworking space, there is not as much crossover with technology when students are first starting out. Students first need to learn how to use the tools with their hands. They can easily move on to laser etching after learning hard tracing. But to use the CNC machine, capable of converting files, they must first learn Adobe Illustrator. He sees the potential to have a traditional program in the first semester with technical enhancements in the second semester. A trajectory where students acquire the basics in woodshop, move through a technical design course, and return to an advanced woodworking class with new knowledge allows them to build on what they learned and ultimately use all the machines in the woodshop, both traditional and technical. Pease would also like to see classes in advanced woodworking. With the resources, the support, and the know-how, he sees the chance to have a robust program that bridges Middle School and High School. “A lot of funding has gone into the woodshop,” he says. Getting students to use the space is a big priority. With so much enthusiasm and passion for his craft, he says, “these programs have the potential to be awesome!”

While there is a vision about how everything comes together, there is first a need for curricular support. Over the years, the schools have received grants and generous donors have gifted equipment. The challenge with getting equipment first lies in figuring out how it fits into the existing program. The best solution going forward, though, is determining the curricular need, deciding what courses should be in place, then determining what the infrastructure should look like. Currently, some of the technical courses unify; but not all classes live in the same department. Other coursework needs revision or is missing altogether. The high school introductory Computer Science course builds on what students learn at Stanley, but they might benefit from a more advanced set of offerings that could include a 3D modeling or CAD program. Students may be doing well in AP Computer Science Principles, but they want more. There is also a lot of interest in bringing back an Introduction to Engineering Design Course. Shawn and Appel would both like to see that happen. “We need to bring it back but make it relevant,” Shawn says. Then there are the students with varied interests but no idea how to merge them. “Some enjoy computer sciences and are interested in 3D design. Others love engineering and really like woodshop but are newly interested in digital assistance. Many have an artistic side and would love to gain an understanding of how to express that in a new way. Woodshop, Art, Engineering and Applied Physics are the kinds of classes that can live together in a maker space. The goal is to get all students in these classes,” Appel says. Shawn agrees. “To do so, we need the infrastructure and the coursework to support it.”

With so many ideas and so much excitement around creating this space, Shawn says “What we need now is a narrowing of focus. The biggest question is how do we map these classes so students can have a plan?” Backwards planning provides the answer. It begins with the end goal in mind, then determines how to provide curricular support. Identifying that objective is still part of the work ahead. Plans may include a capstone course or an upper-level experience. Once articulated, they will define the pathways that students can take. While these outcomes are currently being developed, many questions exist. What does a good map for computer science and engineering look like? What about visual arts? Are there areas where these programs can overlap and inform each other? What are the areas of growth and inspiration? What are the different entry points into this program? How will they provide meaning for kids? Most importantly, how do we make the space usable for everyone? Shawn says, “There are so many jobs in the future with opportunities for hands-on work. Many classes and disciplines would benefit from access to design tools.” Career paths going forward will need to be multidimensional, so The Fab Lab should be a space where all relevant classes can use the space. With multiple points of entry into this space, the possibilities are endless.

All that said, a space such as this never can be truly awesome without students in the room. Having the infrastructure and the coursework in place is one thing but maintaining continued student interest can be challenging. Many of these elective classes have been personality driven in the past. When a teacher is passionate about a subject and willing to grow a program, student interest follows. When a teacher leaves, the connection to the program is lost. After Bear Beagleman, the former Woodshop teacher at Acalanes, moved on, class enrollment and student interest declined. Appel says the best question to ask when making a program personality proof, is “how do we make it more relatable to kids?” Students need to know that the skills they are learning in woodshop have a use elsewhere, and that the knowledge they gain in other courses can inform what they do in a maker space. The good news is that there was a lot of interest at this year’s Acalanes Electives Open House, where students can see options. That means the promotion piece is good. But it’s “not always on kids’ radar to take woodshop and robotics.” Appel wants it to be, and he would love to see The Fab Lab become a hub for all the classes that would benefit from this space. Those classes include but are not limited to Digital Design, 3D Art, Physics, Computer Science, Robotics, Woodshop 1 & 2, Art, Engineering and Design, and Stagecraft. Depending on the pathway students choose, capstone classes could include Engineering and Applied Physics, or an Independent Study tailored to the individual students’ interest. Ideally these could be done in a design fabrication lab. More than anything, “these classes really are project-based learning” where students actively explore real-world challenges and problems in a student-centered environment.

The best way to promote this program is to “get kids in the space early!” That’s why maintaining a strong foundation in Wood Tech at Stanley and establishing a strong bridge to Acalanes is key to the success of this program. As it stands, these are traditional woodshops with the possibility to become more robust spaces that can inspire the next generation of students, designers, engineers and more. Shawn sees that expansion as possible when the current rooms are incorporated into a larger maker space with the ability to reach students who are not just interested in woodshop, but other classes as well. This is where the curricular piece comes into play. There are still so many unanswered questions, with the biggest ones asking how to generate more interest in these programs and how to incorporate related classes into this space. “We are at the beginning of what will be a longer process.” Acalanes is fortunate to have strong professionals guiding the process. While the road ahead is long, Shawn knows that we can reach this goal. He is grateful for the support that they are receiving along the way. “We would not be walking this path without the support of LPIE or the support of the community.”

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