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Winter 2013-2014

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Re-Starting Woodshop

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Re-Starting Woodshop

School News:Colfax High School

By Jonathan Schwartz


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 hands-on skills—woodshop, 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 High School.

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 company).

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.

 

Finding Funding

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 schoolnews@americanwoodworker.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 woodshop program. Jonathan’s portable Laptop and Bottom stool was awarded a design-and-build grant from the Lemelson-MIT invention program that helped to fund additional woodshop tool purchases.


The stool folds and locks to securely hold the laptop for carrying.


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.”