When I was a college student, I worked at a cabinet
shop. The shop’s owner was a gifted craftsman, but
he knew very little math. After I taught him basic
right-triangle trigonometry, he was amazed how easy
it was to calculate angles for the complex custom cabinets
that he built.
Today my job as a math teacher at Colfax High
School in Colfax, California is just the opposite.
When I started teaching in 1995, my trigonometry
classes were filled with college-bound students that
could not calculate fractions or read a tape measure.
Watching them struggle with basic math made me
realize that they didn’t understand how numbers
work. That’s when it occurred to me that students can
learn only so much in a traditional classroom with
books and a whiteboard; real learning also occurs
when they work with their hands.
I thought about classes
I’d taken that taught
in particular. In
woodshop, I used numbers
and calculations to
design and build projects.
I learned the
importance of correct measurements as well as the
significance of miscalculation. Woodshop, I realized,
combined hands-on learning with math. For this reason,
I decided to re-introduce woodshop to Colfax
When Colfax High School opened in 1963, its
woodshop was state-of-the art. In those days, vocational
programs were highly valued and received a
considerable amount of financial and administrative
support. Colfax’s woodshop program was excellent
for more than 30 years. But then the teacher retired,
and shortly thereafter, the woodshop program was
put on hold, because of cost, lack of a qualified
instructor and the perception that vocational skills
classes were no longer relevant.
Restarting the woodshop program has taken a lot of
energy and the better part of a decade. Many tools and machines had disappeared from the
shop and fewer than half of those that
remained were in working order. The
persistent lack of funding and the lingering
belief that manual skills are secondary
in the computer age made the
task more difficult.
My big break came when I discovered
that federal, state and private
grant money was available to fund
technology. This was the jump-start I
needed to get woodshop back into the
curriculum. With my school district’s
help, I applied for a federal, state-administered grant
to establish a program called EAST (Environmental
and Spatial Technology), a projects-based technology
class. The intent of EAST was to motivate students academically
by engaging them in projects—exactly what
a woodshop does. The grant proposed having students
design projects on the computer with AutoCAD and
then build them next door in the woodshop. The
funds from the grant allowed us to rebuild the shop,
purchase computers and install a computer lab right
next door (top photo).
The class is purposefully titled “Design and
Construction” to include both academic and hands-on
experience—and to make it sound more appealing to
parents. An instant hit with students, the class always has
a waiting list. It draws an interesting mix of students.
Some are from my pre-calculus class and on their way to
becoming engineers; others are on vocational tracks to
work in cabinet shops or as carpenters. We even have a
class shirt. On the front it pictures a kid working on a
computer, with the title “Design and Construction.” But
on the back, under a skull and crossbones (crossed
hammers, actually), it says “aka Woodshop.”
Our program has also benefited from several
product-design grants from the Lemelson-MIT program,
which supports invention and innovation.
The most recent grant was to develop a folding
wooden stool that doubles as a laptop case—it’s
named the Laptop and Bottom (bottom photos,
page 31). In addition to funding the projects, the
MIT grants allowed us to buy additional tools for
the woodshop. We even entered the Laptop and
Bottom prototype in the Staples Invention Contest
(a national contest sponsored by the office supply
After the class had been operating for a couple
years, the county’s Regional Occupation Program
(www.49erROP.com) offered to help with funding,
recognizing it as a valuable career technical education
program. (California and other states are beginning
to acknowledge the relevance of shop classes
and are starting to make more money available
through state grants and regional occupation programs.)
Currently, I’m trying to get funding from a local
lumber company to buy a small lumber mill. I have
access to logs, because I operate a part-time tree service in the summer. At the start of the school
year, the students and I would mill the logs; the
following year we’d use that wood for our projects.
The goal is to teach students academically
by involving them with a project from start to finish—
with hands-on experience, of course.
I’ve learned that teaching woodshop is harder
work than teaching math. The students are
more demanding, the stress level is much higher
(imagine thirty 15-year-olds working in a
room full of power saws), and keeping the
machinery running is a full-time job. However,
teaching woodshop is the most rewarding thing
I have ever done. I see the kids learning at rates
I have never seen before. Every new batch of
woodshop students reminds me of the importance
of hands-on practical learning and reinforces
my opinion that woodshop (or any manual-
arts class) is essential for every student.
Many funding opportunities are available for school woodshop programs, including federal, state, foundation and private grants. Search the Internet to find them, or partner with your school board, as I did, or contact municipal, county or state governmental representatives for help. Many government and private organizations recognize the value of woodshop classes and want to put money
into promising programs. In my experience,
providers care most that the money will be
used to teach students hands-on skills, so
be sure to clearly explain that aspect in your application. Before you apply for a grant, it’s important to know how it’s targeted. For example, if you teach in a suburban school, it’s a waste of time to apply for a grant targeted for an inner-city school.
Tell us about a dynamic woodworking school or vibrant teaching program. What makes it work? Point out notable teaching
strategies and student accomplishments. Explain how the program excites students about woodworking and tell us how it helps
them develop woodworking skills. Whether the program operates in a public school, community center or a private workshop, we
want to hear about its success. E-mail your story to email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2008, issue #133.
January 2008, issue #133
Purchase this back issue.
Click any image to view a larger version.
Math teacher Jonathan
Schwartz spent nearly a
decade writing grants and
refurbishing and replacing
the old machinery while
re-starting Colfax High
School’s woodshop program,
which had been
mothballed in 1998.
Woodshop students use AutoCAD programs to design
their projects. Colfax’s woodshop has its own computer
lab, which is adjacent to the shop.
Why doesn’t it fit? Instructor Jonathan Schwartz has
found that students develop problem-solving skills by
designing and building projects.
Grant money has
played an important
role in revitalizing
Colfax High School’s
Laptop and Bottom
stool was awarded a
grant from the
helped to fund additional
The stool folds and
locks to securely
hold the laptop for
Jonathan Schwartz graduated from U.C. Davis and after traveling
around the world as an outdoor guide, started a contracting
business. After five years, he returned to education.
Jonathan attained a Masters in Math Education from Harvard
in 1995 and has been teaching math at Colfax High
School in California ever since. His woodshop “Design and
Construction” class is now in its third year. According to
Jonathan, the secret to teaching innovation and creativity is
to have kids look at complex problems and come up with
solutions. “It’s hard for students to come up with a solution
unless they are able to build it and see if it works or not—
and build it again if it does not work.”