Shop class is dead. Long live the MakerSpace

Making and building things in schools translates into future jobs, a strong economy, and the future of manufacturing.
By: | May 13, 2022
Bre Pettis is the CEO of Bantam Tools, which builds desktop CNC machines.

Shop class was the place I felt most at home in school. In middle school, in these glorious and self-esteem-boosting classes, I made a wood gumball machine with a canning ball jar mounted upside down for the gumballs. I fabricated a giant wood clothespin with a spring, hanging planters for houseplants, and birdhouses too. If you’ve ever fixed anything or made something, you know the feeling of accomplishment. Shop class had me hooked on that feeling. Being young and learning how to make things that I imagined with power tools that could take my finger off was a feeling of accomplishment that gave a much bigger boost to my self-esteem than doing well on a test. Today, I want to see hands-on kinesthetic learning come back to schools in the form of bigger and better MakerSpaces, filled with 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop CNCs (Computer Numerical Control). I don’t want the next generation to miss out on the feelings of creativity and power that come with manifesting projects, solving problems, and making things.

Bre Pettis

Bre Pettis

When the U.S. lost its commitment to the shop class in the 1980 and 1990s, it wasn’t for just one reason. In 1993 the School-to-Work Opportunities Act focused students that weren’t performing well in school into the trades and the result is that students who did well in shop class were not thought of as smart. The No Child Left Behind Act nailed the coffin shut on shop classes by linking school funding to their academic test scores forcing schools to focus on teaching to the tests. There were other factors too. Insurance for shop class with finger chopping machines became more expensive and shop class takes up more room than an average classroom.

The trend of offshoring manufacturing had a part in it as companies started sending manufacturing out of the country. Sending consumer manufacturing overseas sent a message to youth that if you like to make things and have strong physical problem solving, spatial reasoning and kinesthetic skills, then our educational system and the U.S. economy were not for you.

Now, the world is changing again with the pandemic and now war in Europe causing major disruptions in the supply chain and manufacturing capabilities of companies throughout the world, but especially here in the U.S. The old ways of sending manufacturing offshore doesn’t make as much sense as it once did. With supply chain disruptions, just-in-time manufacturing doesn’t work the way it used to, or even at all. To grow the spirit of innovation in our country, the time is now to bring back shop class as makerSpaces in schools. MakerSpaces are essential to building back the foundation of our manufacturing sector and giving the next generation the tools to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. These tools need to be within arms reach to have an impact and schools need to have the frame of mind to say, “We need the next generation to have the skills to innovate now and we need innovation to be a priority in every school here in the United States.”

Related: Creating a makerspace on a shoestring

I was in middle school in the early 80s and in my school we had both a metal and woodshop. The teachers lectured us on how to not lose fingers and we had access to scroll saws, band saws, drill presses, and sheet metal brakes. For woodshop class, about half of our class time was dedicated to sanding down the wooden pieces and smoothing them to perfection before applying stain.

Our teacher was clear about the objectives of the class. He said that if we ever were out of work, he wanted us to be able to make toys out of wood because he predicted that there will always be a market of people with babies and that we could sell our self-fabricated toys at a local market. In short: Shop class was about building resiliency, self-esteem, and independence.

My high school didn’t have a wood or metal shop, but it did have an auto shop and I loved that class too. I had an old jeep that was always broken and in this class I fixed every system on that car. It was pretty clear that students who had low performing test scores were encouraged to join these classes. It wasn’t a secret that other students who saw us go to these classes thought we were stupider than them. At best, maybe they thought, the shop kids might have a chance at a job without going to college. This attitude that people who are strong in physical problem solving, spatial reasoning and kinesthetic skills are of lower class is one of the things that we need to eradicate not just from our education system, but from our society.

My earlier years combined with my experiences with shop and auto class inspired me to engineer and build things that weren’t readily available to the masses. I’ve made a cheese sandwich-making machine and endless do-dads. I am still intrigued by machines and what they can empower us to make. I’ve had some success building businesses around these skills and I’ve had the opportunity to visit some amazing manufacturing facilities including the Ferrari and Tesla factories. One of the coolest places in the world for those who like to make things is the MIT Media Lab, which has the most epic workshop. It’s rad. Besides the normal manual machines, which see a lot of use, they have 3D printers, lasers, and CNC machines. They make parts for amazing things like robots and mind reading orbs—forward-thinking things that most would think are science fiction. It’s interesting to me that while other students may have looked down on me for taking auto shop, one of the most elite educational institutions in the world has a similar workshop for inventing the future at its core.

Related: 4 ways donated furniture energizes a makerspace

In 2009, I co-founded and ran MakerBot, a company that pioneered desktop 3D printing. 3D printing alone started to fill the skills gap. During that time I met a student with amniotic band syndrome who was born without a hand. When he learned about 3D printing, he downloaded the design for a hand prosthetic and he hijacked his science teacher’s MakerBot to make his own prosthetic hand. With his new hand, he was able to catch a football and it was life-changing. When I asked him what he had planned for improvement, without hesitating, he said, “I’m going to add lasers.” For me, this experience reinforced the need for MakerSpaces in schools to empower students to solve immediate challenges and learn how to innovate organically.

One of the exciting things about being alive today is that fabrication tools from shop class that used to require giant classrooms or entire floors of academic institutions can now fit in an office-sized room or regular classroom. Modern fabrication machines are much safer and more affordable and weigh a lot less than the machines in wood and metal shops from days past.

There are so many students desperate and hungry for the type of learning that can happen in a Makerspace in a school. Many schools are filling the void left by defunct shop classes by creating MakerSpaces and are getting 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines to unlock the latent talent in their students. At Bantam Tools we see our skill-building customers clamoring to use our machines to empower their students to compete in FIRST robotics challenges and use them to design and build new ideas and products for classes on entrepreneurism. Being able to design and produce something physical is a way to connect with students who learn best through hands-on experiences. Today, we need society, schools, and parents to embrace the power of making and find ways of getting digital fabrication equipment into the hands of students. Teachers need to become skill builders, who in turn guide their students to learn marketable skills that will support future engineers and manufacturing. In doing so, they will create the world changers of tomorrow.

Bre Pettis is the CEO of Bantam Tools, based in Peekskill, New York. Bantam Tools builds desktop CNC machines with professional reliability and precision to support world changers and skill builders. Prior to running Bantam Tools, Pettis owned and operated Bre & Co., and Bold Machines, both off-shoots of his work with the 3D printing company MakerBot.

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