Defining our class. Thoughts on STEM, Makerspaces and shop class.

I have spent a great deal of time pondering the definition of my class.  I frequently am asked about what I teach and quickly look for a way to explain to someone without having to give too much background knowledge.  By class name definition it is a manufacturing and engineering course.  It is still the best term to use, but it leaves much to be desired by interested groups that don’t have manufacturing experience.

It is hard to visualize what occurs in a manufacturing class.  What do they do?  I have discovered that people want an instant visualization of the class at the point of question, so I frequently say that it is a shop class.  This has the advantage of an instant picture of the class I teach.  Unfortunately, it is the wrong image.  It conjures up thoughts of cutting boards, birdhouses, and handmade toolboxes of the shop classes from the 1960’s-1990’s.  In my 5 years here one cutting board was made and had extensive CNC work on it.

So what specifically do we do?  

We do have traditional woodworking units, traditional metal working units on welding and manual machining, but we also specialize in CNC machining, 3D printing, Solidworks, robotics, aircraft assembly, composites, coding and art.  We prepare students for manufacturing jobs and prepare them for a life of creating as well as a life of informed consuming.  My students know how things are made and have the actual skills to make them.  They realize that all tools are easy to learn and with creativity and hard work anything can be made. They view a problem from the mindset of all manufacturing fields.  They learn that with their knowledge of creating things, they can help their families and the community.  They learn independence and a strong sense of confidence in the world around them.  

Are schools aiming for this right now?  

There are amazing movements in education right now that really exciting for a program like mine.  Terms like STEM and Makerspaces are extremely popular.  STEM is the idea of incorporating the vastness and hands on learning ideas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into all subjects or even in stand alone classes.  Robotics programs and curriculum like Project Lead the Way are ways that districts are successfully incorporating stand alone STEM programs.  Makerspaces are the focal point to the “Maker” movement.  A makerspace is a centralized location for students and community members to come together with tools, materials and ideas to make projects.  It is important to not only have ideas, but get hands-on and make these ideas.  Some school and public libraries are starting to support these concepts by having areas for tinkering, tools, 3D printers and materials.

STEM

The STEM term or the recently popular STE(A)M (adding the arts) seems to be a way for teachers to start incorporating these subjects into their class, but falls short of addressing some of the classes that deal with these subjects natively.  My students can get out of my class a high school Science, CTE, Art and Math Credit.  If a class is certified by the state to get these credits, I believe that not only STEM education is being achieved, but at the highest level.  So, I like using the STEM term in certain situations, but it leaves something to be desired.  The term STEM is almost a term for a goal.  “We are working toward STEM,” or “We are introducing STEM into our curriculum.”  It almost seems like a step backwards to call this class STEM.  We have STEM classes in our middle schools and they are a perfect introduction to a class like this.  What do you call the class you take after you take a dedicated STEM class?  

Makerspace

Again, a similar issue.  Many schools scrapped their shop classes due to our society needing so few woodworkers.  That and the cost to run them is outrageous.  Marysville School District wisely kept their equipment and found ways to make it survive through the dark ages of Shop Classes (about 1995-2005).  I say the dark ages because of the frequent removal of them during that time, but the popularity of them now.  I blame high stakes testing for the need to remove them from the schools.  I blame FIRST robotics for the re-emergence of wanting the shop class.  This is how I picture this:  Districts that removed their shop classes sit around a table and notice their FIRST robotics team is doing so well.  They are engaging students.   FIRST students are excelling in school.  These students are achieving great things after graduation.  They notice this and say, “Hey, I wonder if we had a classroom dedicated to having tools and workspaces so that they can build these robots.”  Then they realize that the cost is fairly prohibitive to start over.  So they scrape together tools and workspaces that were never intended for this purpose and succeed just fine in an O.K. situation.  What would have happened if the traditional shop class was never removed and was instead transformed during the dark ages and has transformed as the dream space that these districts discussed.  Instead of a pieced together space for making, it is a fully defined and professional space for making.  I guess what I am getting at is that makerspaces are great, but can leave a lot to be desired.   The average makerspace isn’t fully equiped.  The other budding question about the validity of makerspaces is the lack of focus on employment or college preparedness.  The tinkering nature and small project focused makerspace may not fully prepare students for the manufacturing job market.  I love every makerspace I have seen.  I love the ingenuity of teachers and communities coming together and the skills that kids are learning, but what do you call an advanced makerspace?

In the end I do believe that manufacturing and engineering is the best title, but I want to incorporate the ideas of STEM and Makerspace because those ideals share some of the essence of this class.  I am not sure if I am looking for a new term, wanting to join a popular term or just keep trudging away with our current term.  I like what we do and have accomplished and really want the term for it to highlight the amazing work that our students do.  

 

 

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