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Scott Swaaley of Make Safe Tools

As a maker, San Diego-native Scott Swaaley is a triple-threat.  He can build things; he can teach; and he can start and run his own business.  An electrical engineer who became a high school teacher, Scott started Make Safe Tools in 2018 to produce products that make workshops safer.  One of its products is the MakeSafe Power Tool Brake.

In this podcast episode, I talk to Scott about his experiences as an engineer, educator and entrepreneur, and “how those experience overlap in unexpected ways.” However, seeing himself as “constant learner” and willing to try things he didn’t know if he could do were both reasons he became successful at each endeavor.

As an electrical engineer, he worked on designing electrical systems for hospitals as well as renewable energy systems.  Then, he took a sabbatical from engineering, and found himself exploring his next job, a teacher.  He taught ninth graders at High Tech High in San Diego, an innovative public school that focused on experiential learning and student projects.  I first met Scott at Maker Faire San Diego in 2013 where he and his students created laser-cut exhibit called MakeShift Poetry.

High Tech High Exhibit at Maker Faire San Diego in 2013

While teaching there, Scott was named an Allen Distinguished Educator.

He then went to work at The Nueva School in San Mateo, CA.  It is a private school for gifted students in Silicon Valley.  In addition to teaching, he ran the makerspace at the school and he had all the resources he could ask for.  Every student at Nueva was exposed to making and did projects in the space.  It was there that Scott recognized a need to improve the level of safety in a makerspace, especially for students.  While there was no particular accident that alerted him, he thought it was luck that such accidents did not happen.  He set out to build a plug-and-play device that would control how a machine is turned on, and which also has the ability to brake and stop any motorized machine such as a bandsaw.

 

You can see a demo of his product here:

What I appreciate about Scott is his boundless energy and enthusiasm.  As someone who calls himself the “worst student ever”, “Be Learning All the Time” would seem to be a fitting motto for him.

You can find out more about Make Safe Tools at makesafetools.com.  Scott mentioned that he offers a 50% discount on his tools for use in public schools.

Excerpts

On deciding to leave his engineering job

And the thing that led me into teaching specifically was — I remember a particular meeting with a particular client. I won’t say who it is that it was like a board level group, one- level under the board on a large company. I was giving a presentation about something that had some analytics in it. And it was not fancy analytics. It was some kind of simple arithmetic looking at trends, things like that. I was getting the same looks from the audience and this is an audience of, relatively successful middle-aged executives. And I’m getting the same look in their eye that I would get, like when I used to teach math in college and it was that same (thing), like people just hear numbers and they shut down automatically before they try to understand. And it was like infuriating to me.

On hearing about High Tech High in San Diego

I Googled (High Tech High) and it turned out they had an info session two days later. So I just drove down, turned out to be an exhibition  about chocolate creation in South America and people that are making chocolate and how it’s like a great industry, but also really oppressive in different ways. And it’s just this really dynamic thing for eighth graders. I applied the next day and got rejected twice. And then finally got brought on as an emergency substitute, teaching senior physics.

On learning to teach at High Tech High:

I think it came down to — I’m someone that kind of had an instinct for building and I loved building things. I’m a pretty good communicator and I’m relatively organized.  I think like having those saved me, if I was missing any one of those, it would have been a train wreck. And yeah we just came up with some fun projects, got to have some kind of real talk with 18 year olds that are about to start their life.

At High Tech High

They do amazing experiential learning. Instead of learning about how to start a business, they start and operate a food truck. They figure out how to fundraise, buy a food truck, renovate it. Get the licenses, figure out the economics, learn how to cook, learn the science of cooking, like just layer after layer. And that’s one class at one semester. They have all of these experiences.

My goal when I taught ninth graders there, which I spent the most time doing, was that people would see the work and they’d say, wow, that’s really great. Yeah, freshmen made it. They were like, Oh, That’s amazing. Freshmen. What university are they at? No high school freshmen. And it’d be like, wait, what? And they just wouldn’t understand it. That was like the biggest flattery for me.

At Nueva School, a private school for gifted students in Silicon Valley

The philosophy of education was the same, but the setting could not be more different in that way. It was really great not having to worry as much about the physical resources. It was two campuses that had everything from the craft kind of stuff, sewing, hot glue, all the way up to, I think we had seven large-scale CNC machines, Tormach mills, seven welding setups. Like we did everything. And we were teaching sixth graders, artificial intelligence programming, like building neural networks when they’re like a year out of elementary school. It was really cool. Cause we could go really deep with kids. And I expected there to be more of – Oh, am I going to have to learn how to teach? It’s a totally different population. Kids are kids. That part was very much the same.

In the school makerspace he saw the need to improve safety

The one thing that just always bothered me was our band saws got tons of use and they coast forever. That was something where someone that’s doing everything right could still get hurt. And there was a few times where like a teacher would plug something in that had gotten moved that would turn on and startle someone. And in all those cases, no one was nearby, but like you could imagine that someone was, and so I had just started tinkering, like I do, and that had turned a little obsessive for awhile.