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Back in April, Casey Shea wrote about transforming the old Tech Lab at Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif. into a modern, usable, and attractive new shop space for his Project Make classes, as well as the greater Analy and Sebastopol community. After a few whirlwind months, including a showcase at the Maker Faire Bay Area Educator Meetup, documented by EdSurge, Casey returns to talk about his recent explorations and experiences and follows up with his No. 2 and No. 1 favorite tools for a high school makerspace.

Transformative Tool No. 2: Laser Cutter

If money were no object, the laser cutter would be my No. 1 tool, as it is perhaps the most versatile tool that I have ever used. However, with most models costing over $15,000, a laser cutter is out of reach for most high schools. Fortunately, some lower cost alternatives are becoming available that might just tip the scales to make it possible for schools to take advantage of what these machines can offer.

Last year, we obtained a 40W Hobby Deluxe laser from Full Spectrum Laser. At around $2,000, it cuts and engraves a wide variety of materials using files designed in easy-to-use software, even those found in common office suites. My choice of design software is Inkscape because it’s free and runs on Mac, PC or Linux, but AutoCAD and other popular software can be used to design incredibly intricate objects. Intricate laser-cut items from AnalyThe Retina Engrave software that drives the machine even includes capable design tools that are easy to use.

At the recent Maker Faire Bay Area, I shared a table with Full Spectrum Laser, used their new 5th generation 40W laser, and found it to be a vast improvement over the previous model. It is faster and larger, 12” x 20” vs. 9.5” x 14”, and can engrave on even larger material by removing the bottom. I was able to get one sent to our shop for a more complete trial for a future post, but I can already see that at around $3,500, this machine might be the perfect introductory model for middle and high schools.

The practical uses of laser cutters in the shop range from making acrylic enclosures for electronics projects to cardboard prototypes. Around the school campus, the laser has been used to make signs — well-designed and very professional — for a fraction of what they would cost if purchased elsewhere.

Analy Recycle Bin signs

Most exciting to me are the possibilities for these machines to be used in the making of custom instructional materials. I hope to explore and expand on this topic; the best example I have of custom instructional materials is individual whiteboards.

Many teachers know that 4’x8’ sheets of 1/8” shower board, available at big box hardware stores for less than $15 a sheet, can be cut to size and used with common dry erase markers. The laser cutter can engrave permanent words or images into the whiteboard, making custom boards available for less than 50 cents a square foot. As a math teacher, I have made boards for graphing practice, and conversations with colleagues have produced maps for social studies and verb charts for language classes, among other uses. For lower grades, individual whiteboards can be used to practice everything from handwriting to telling time.

Laser-cut map from Analy HS

Empowering teachers to produce their own materials, exactly how they want them, designed in word processing programs that they already know how to use, and produced for less than $20 a class set could change the daily practice for many teachers.

Transformational Tool No. 1: Vinyl Cutter

Many people might not even know what a vinyl cutter is, but it is my No. 1 choice for the school community at large because it is cheap, easy to use, and has a wide variety of applications. It safely introduces students to the world of CNC and CAD and can spruce up the campus to boot. While professional models cost several thousand dollars, I found a US Cutter SC model with bundled software, specialized tools, and a dozen rolls of vinyl in assorted colors for about $500, including shipping.

My students have used it for making personalized stickers and signs of all sizes, as well as the resist for custom circuit boards. Art students have made stencils for silk screening T-shirts and glazing ceramics projects. Around campus, this machine has been used to make student-created signs and banners for various events and fundraising stickers for clubs at a cost as low as $.01 per square inch.

Vinyl dragon sticker from Analy HS

Of course there are a host of other useful and necessary tools for your high school makerspace, but the 3D printer, laser cutter and vinyl cutter offer the best opportunity to put the marvelous things you can make into the public eye. When teachers and other members of the school community see how easily they can use these tools to upgrade the look of signage in their rooms and on campus and to make their own customized instructional materials, you might need to set up a reservation system for their use. After experiencing the power and possibilities of making things with these tools (and the rest of the great things happening in your space), many will come away with ideas for their students to use in their classes. As these tools and practices become more integrated into the school culture, they are more likely to survive your presence and less likely to fade away with any future swings of the education pendulum.

Stephanie Chang

Stephanie is the program developer for education at Maker Media. She has worked in STEAM education for years now, previously running The Tech Museum Summer Camps, and spends her time making new digital and tangible connections in the world of ed.


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