The high-tech return of high school shop class

The high-tech return of high school shop class

by Jamie Gumbrecht

In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama talked about redesigning schools for a high-tech future. He gave a shout-out to a technical high school in Brooklyn, and to 3-D printing. In a moment of seeming agreement, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio mentioned incentives for schools to add vocational and career training.

But long gone are the days of shop class, or even “vocational training,” said Stephen DeWitt, the senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education. For many years, he saw career and technical education cut by shrunken budgets or “literally and figuratively left in the back of the school, separate from academics.”

What’s emerging in schools now is something tougher to pin down. In one district, it might be a fancy new school dedicated to teaching tech. In another, an apprenticeship program. Some schools design career and technical classes to line up with college-prep courses that guide students to become engineers, chefs, CEOs or doctors. Almost 80% of high school students who concentrated on career and technical studies pursued some type of postsecondary education within two years of finishing high school, the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2011.

“We’re hearing policy makers talk about it more often. Certain districts are looking at career and technical education as a way to reform schools,” DeWitt said. “The focus on project-based learning, how to get students engaged more, is something that’s caught on.”

That might mean more maker spaces sprouting up at schools, too.

They are exactly what they sound like – a space to make things. The workshops and warehouses have taken off in communities around the country during the last few years, but the push to add them to schools is still fresh.

“Maker spaces aren’t in schools and they need to be,” MAKE magazine founder Dale Dougherty told a crowd at Maker Faire in Michigan last summer. “Not just a summer camp, not just an after-school program.”

MAKE secured a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build the “hacker spaces” in schools – a move some criticized because of its military ties. The money helped to launch maker spaces at a handful of Northern California schools this school year.

The goal: more than 1,000 by 2015.

Administration, costs, tests – yes, all those things could get in the way of a space dedicated to hands-on learning, Dougherty said. But what educator, what economist, wouldn’t want a classroom of engineers, creators and entrepreneurs?

“It’s hard, in some ways, to change schools, but I’m not feeling resistance,” said Dougherty, who spoke at SXSWedu in March 2013. “A lot of schools have machines from old shop classes. Recover that before it goes to the dump.”

That’s what happened at  Analy High School in Sebastopol, California. Students there took over a room at the nearby headquarters of MAKE magazine to get more hands-on learning, and last fall, they moved into a 3,200-square-foot building on their own campus. For years, the space had sat empty after metal shop and agriculture classes dropped off the curriculum or moved to other spaces. Now, nearly 50 kids are there every day, learning to make LED-lit shoes with built-in GPS, high-tech, steampunk-styled airships, and a “drawbot” that works like an oversized, programmable Etch a Sketch.

In the last few weeks, students designed those projects, created budgets and pitched their ideas to local Rotary Club members, school officials and a MAKE engineer who agreed to fund the best of them. Building will begin soon on the kicks, ship and bot, along with at least three other projects.

The students spent much of the first semester building out the space, but they’re already incorporating new tools and technology into their ideas, said Casey Shea, their teacher.

“When they were doing their proposals, how nonchalantly they were like, ‘Let’s 3-D print that piece,'” said Shea, a math teacher who took on the Project Make class between algebra and pre-calc sections. “It’s not magic to them. They’re used to seeing crazy things and thinking, ‘Yeah, I can do that.'”


The slow death of American manufacturing and the trend toward outsourcing overseas has made it hard to find American-made goods, but not impossible. A host of small businesses are still dedicated to manufacturing goods in America, and, thanks to a few diligent bloggers, they’re easier than ever to find.

“Buying Made in USA is not just a passing trend. It truly is something we as consumers, business owners and even government can do to support small to mid-size businesses,” said Julie Reiser, president and co-founder of Made in USA Certified, which audits supply chains for businesses that want their products to bear their seal.

“Small businesses are responsible for two out of every three new jobs created in the U.S. We need these small to mid-size businesses to flourish and grow as they are our innovators, our makers and job creators. Making it in America, supporting U.S. manufacturing and buying American is one thing we can all do today to help keep the American dream alive and well.”

Made in USA pop-ups bring together like-minded consumers

Here’s a short list of websites and Facebook groups dedicated to helping consumers find products made in the United States, along with a few brands known to manufacture most or a substantial portion of their goods stateside. Read the list and help us grow it by adding your suggestions in the comments.


The Made in America Movement

USA Love List

American Made Matters

A Continuous Lean: The American List

Things Made in America

made in usa challenge

Hickorees: Made in the USA

Haute Americana



Archival: Bags, apparel, blankets

Arne Mason: Leather carrying cases

Blackbox Case: Wooden laptop cases

Corter Leather and Cloth: Belts, wallets, key chains

Fox River Mills: Socks

Makr Carry Goods: Bags, stools, wallets, belts

NATIVE(X): Totes, scarves, jewelry, mugs

Pendleton: Blankets and apparel

Pierrepont Hicks: Ties, bowties

Randolph Engineering: Glasses, sunglasses

Summit Creek Dry Goods: Wallets, key chains, belts

Estex Mfg. Co.: Tool sheaths, aprons, buckets, holsters


Archival Clothing

Duluth Pack


J.W. Hulme


Mountain Ridge Gear

Tom Bihn

Tough Traveler


All American Clothing

American Apparel

Beverly Hills Basics

Black Halo

C&C California

Emerson Fry

Hanky Panky

Imogene and Willie

Kate Boggiano

Left Field


Pointer Brand

Raleigh Denim

Taylor Stitch

Todd Shelton




Allen Edmonds

Capps Shoe Company

Munro Shoes

Oakstreet Bootmakers


Rancourt and Company

Red Wing Heritage line

Russell Moccasin Co.


Bollman Hat Company

Stormy Kromer

Walz Caps




Audio Research: Audio products

Braun Corporation: Manufacturer of wheelchair lifts and ramps, transit vehicles

Case Knives: Pocket and hunting knives

Colgate: Crib mattresses and pads

Council Tool: Hand tools

CUTCO Cutlery

Edelbrock: Specialty vehicle parts

Excel: Hand dryers

Grado Labs: Headphones and phone cartridges

Heritage General Store: Bicycles

Litespeed Bicycles

Pacific Hospitality Design: Furniture

K’NEX: Children’s toys

Geneva Manufacturing: Modular garage organizing gear

Itsy Bitsy Ritzy Shop: Furniture

Lodge Cast Iron Cookware

MAK Grills

Malpaca: Pillows and bedding

Portland General Store: Grooming products for men

Purrfectplay: Pet toys

Simplicity Vacuums

Sterilite: Plastic Housewares

Steelman Cycles

Stonebridge Upholstery: Furniture

Tervis: Tumblers, drink ware

USA Flag Supply: American, Gadsen, specialty flags

Vandersteen Audio: Speakers

Wholesome Hide: Rawhide dog chews



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