A new, digital spin on your old school shop class

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    This was what shop classes looked like back in 1892 at the Dwight School in Boston. Teaching young people to use tools readied them for a modernizing economy. Today some school administrators are rethinking the shop class and opting to convert them into digital labs to train kids on the tools of the next economy. 
[Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

    This was what shop classes looked like back in 1892 at the Dwight School in Boston. Teaching young people to use tools readied them for a modernizing economy. Today some school administrators are rethinking the shop class and opting to convert them into digital labs to train kids on the tools of the next economy. [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

    Goodbye lathes, hello 3D printers.

    Across the country, a handful of schools are giving their old shop classrooms a major makeover, turning them into engineering labs. Goodbye hammers and saws, hello CAD programs and 3D printers.

    Junior High School 157 in Queens, New York is one such school. It’s a full city block of solid brick, standing three stories tall, housing over 1,600 students. On a recent visit, teachers told me it’s probably the most diverse school in the area, and a lot of the students are on free lunch.

    On a tour of the classrooms, Principal Vincent Suraci led me up the stairs to the school’s new crown jewel. Its engineering labs.

    He said the school was built in the late 1940s, complete with shop classes, which were meant to prepare students for the hands-on world of manufacturing work that was common at that time

    “When we were looking to bring technology into our school,” he told me, “we identified the shop classrooms as the perfect area to begin our computer labs, and our STEM labs.”

    Almost three years ago now, Junior High School 157 was selected as one of twenty schools in New York City’s Software Engineering Pilot program, co-sponsored by AT&T.

    “We have students who are creating apps,” said Suraci, “students are learning to code, students are participating in flight simulations with our flight simulator.”

    Yeah, that’s right…they have a flight simulator.

    He walks me down the hall to the schools STEM lab. The energy of the classroom boils over. Teacher Louis Cooper leads 30 students—all sixth graders—working on three separate activities. Besides the flight stimulator there’s kids working on a computer-aided design program (CAD)—they’re following along in an instruction pamphlet. It tells them step by step how to design a 3d object.

    “It kind of looks like a lego with a hole inside,” one student explained.

    Other students are researching famous inventors using big touch screen tables. In two other corners of the class sit 3D printers. The students will eventually use the CAD program to design and print objects with them.

    This feels like the future, but among the tech-savvy 11 year olds, fancy hardware, and the flight simulator, there’s something largely missing. Girls. Like the shop classes of the 20th century, this STEM lab is also short on female representation. STEM lab teacher Louis Cooper told me he’s noticed this too.

    “There’s just something about the middle school age,” he said. “You see the enrollment with girls just fall off.”

    “We’ve had a lot more girls in the recent years,” says software engineering teacher Laurie Stahl Van-Brackle. “In one class I have 2 girls, and he has one class that’s all guys. But I have one class with twelve girls and another that has like 7. So that’s great.”

    The kids get to pick their electives before the school year starts. Things like drama, chorus, band, art, and engineering. And for most girls at this school, the engineering classes just aren’t the winner in that mix.

    But the teachers say once girls see what’s going on in the engineering room, they get excited about it. And the few girls who are in the engineering elective classes I visited, were totally loving it.

    A couple of the girls in Stahl Van-Brackle’s software engineering class had gone to New York’s Maker Faire and were enthused about a huge robot that could shoot fire out of its wrists. And in the other classroom the one girl working on the CAD program was clearly at the head of the pack.

    “I want to be an engineer when I grow up,” she said resolutely. “So this is why I joined this. I was the only girl at the beginning. But I wanted to join because even if there wasn’t any girls I still wanted to persist and do this.”

    About half the kids I talked to said they wanted to be engineers. These are sixth graders, but they used words like “persist” and “career goals” and “achieve my dreams.”

    And here’s what’s really cool about these classrooms, apart from the glitz of the technology—the kids here are using math, they’re using reading skills, problem solving, and they’re testing their skills by making stuff.

    This fall New York’s mayor pledged that every student in the city will get computer science classes by 2025. And other cities in the nation are making similar goals. There’s a big price tag attached to that promise, one that will require more private donations beyond tax dollars.

    Tech companies have a big motivation for funding these made-over shop classes. They’re helping train their future employees.

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