Analy High School program a national model for hands-on learning

An expansive old shop building with weathered concrete flooring and a hodgepodge of repurposed materials hardly seems the setting for innovative 21st century learning, but looks can be deceiving.

The Project Make classroom at Analy High School in Sebastopol is a national model for the maker movement, an educational concept that engages students with hands-on, interactive learning that builds confidence, creativity, curiosity and critical-thinking skills.

Just four years after developing the county’s first maker program, Analy teacher Casey Shea is helping other educators bring the program to classrooms across the region.

Now in his second year as a teacher-on-loan with the Sonoma County Office of Education in Santa Rosa, Shea, 50, splits his time between SCOE and Analy, where he teaches two Project Make classes.

At his well-equipped Analy classroom - a workshop, really - Shea has assembled everything from high-tech tools and fancy computers to nuts, bolts and circuit breakers to challenge and encourage students to design and make everything from stickers and banners to rockets, catapults and sophisticated robotics projects.

“Students have a sense of satisfaction when they’ve completed something,” Shea said. “They push through and persevere and learn failure is not a judgment, it’s a step along the way.”

Many projects utilize science, technology, engineering, math, art and design skills, blending cross-curricular activities as students create with their hands and minds.

“We evolved as toolmakers,” Shea said. “Using our hands is critical to activating our brains.”

Maker concepts are applicable to students of all ages and academic abilities. Through his work with SCOE, Shea is reaching countless students, through one teacher at a time.

He presents hands-on workshops and on-site training for teachers, welcomes students and educators to a new design lab at SCOE and helps establish maker spaces and projects at elementary, middle and high schools throughout the county.

About 20 campuses in the area have adopted some kind of maker education, with interest rapidly growing. Several have opened designated maker spaces on campus; others have specially-trained teachers who bring projects to various classrooms within their districts.

“It really can change the way people think and the way teachers teach,” Shea said. “It’s game-changing.”

Students learn grade-level design principles, electronics, mechanics and carpentry skills, sometimes surprising themselves with their own maker abilities.

For primary students, it may be creating flashlights from an LED light, copper tape, a coin battery, a paper clip and a Popsicle stick. Older students may tackle more advanced projects, but the theory of learning-by-doing is the same.

“Pretty much if you can think it, you can make it,” Shea said. “The path from the mind to the hand is shorter than it’s ever been before and it’s only going to get shorter.”

High-tech computer-controlled equipment like laser cutters and 3-D printers certainly help, but sometimes a roll of duct tape, a pair of scissors and sturdy construction paper are all that’s needed for young problem solvers and entrepreneurs.

“Kids learn by doing, by interacting,” Shea said. “As a teacher, I’m so fired up by this and most of the kids are, too.”

Maker education is sparking the imagination of everyone, Shea said. “It’s reinvigorated people’s careers.”

Formerly a full-time math teacher at Analy, Shea developed his pilot program in 2011 at the invitation of Dale Dougherty, founder and executive chairman of Maker Media, Inc. The first Project Make class, with an enrollment of 25, was held at “Make:” magazine headquarters at O’Reilly Media, Inc., a 20-minute walk from Analy.

The project caught the attention of CNN and National Public Radio, putting the national spotlight on Sebastopol.

A year later, with the continued backing of Dougherty and the West Sonoma County High School District, and with the support and financial backing of several community organizations, Project Make was established on the Analy campus. The popular elective is open to ninth- through 12th-graders.

“I felt like I was given such an opportunity that it was like a responsibility to share this kind of knowledge,” Shea said.

Shea worked with educators at Sonoma State University to develop a 50-hour maker certificate program, the first of its kind. Presented in partnership with SCOE and Maker Media, Inc., the program was recognized last summer during a maker celebration at the White House.

For Analy senior Mason Hoffman, a third-year Project Make student, the experience in Shea’s class has been significant.

Mason used his new skills to create a business venture making custom key chains, a lucrative enterprise for the 17-year-old. Plus, Project Make led to a career path for the future engineer.

“He’s really opened a lot of doors,” Mason said of Shea.

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