Monday, January 6, 2014

North Salem High School Woods Manufacturing Program

Evan Anderson, a friend, past employee and owner of Near West, an east bay cabinetry company, sent This Article about a great woodworking education program in Salem, Oregon.  The North Salem High School Woods Manufacturing Program serves 400 students annually.  The program does a number of things worth emulating:
* It has a clear focus.  The purpose is to train students to make them ready for the woodworking industry to hire.  This is not a program where students make a step stool to give to their grandmother (like my middle school shop class).  Students participate in real-world cabinetry projects that generate income for the program.  Upon graduation (4 years), if they're qualified, they have the opportunity to work for a local manufacturer that pays them $12-15 per hour to start and as much as $50,000 annually including benefits after 5 years.  This is a real-world skills/jobs program providing students a school to work path.
* It partners with industry.  The program has received $600,000 in donations from what reads like a who's who of the woodworking industry, from major equipment suppliers like Stiles to Besse, a manufacturer of very nice clamps.  That Dean Mattson, the current program head has been so incredibly successful at garnering industry support makes me think that what I suspect might actually be true: that the very human beings within the woodworking industry are eager to participate in education in the way they know best, by giving their products and expertise.  There may be an element of promotion and self interest in their partnering with schools, but there's also, I imagine, tremendous pride that they can be an important part of the resurgence of woodworking education, coupled with altruism.
* It integrates woodworking with other disciplines.  Students are enrolled in a four year program that includes other subjects.  In math, they learn the kinds of math they need for woodworking.  That would be geometry, some algebra and (when they get their cnc machine), I imagine a good deal of math related to programming.
* It gives students a path they can believe in.  Instructor Dean Mattson talks about his student-centric approach to woodworking education.  It's all about getting the students to buy in, to believe that what the program offers is of real value, and then following through with training that leads to employment.
* It stays focused on the big picture and the small picture.  As a teacher, Mattson is focused on the student.  From reading the article one gets the sense that he sees the program through his students' eyes.  He's down at their level and that's likely why he's successful.  But he also keeps his eye on the big picture --getting to know the companies that donate equipment, thinking about who will replace him when he retires, serving on AWFS (Association of Woodworking and Furnishings Suppliers) education committee.

A few thoughts:
The program is definitely taking the old-school heavy-equipment approach to shop class.  Back before most of them were torn out, school shop classes had serious heavy-duty equipment.  I question whether the new shop classes (assuming there is the resurgence I anticipate) will need or want such heavy equipment.  Portable hand tools have gotten very good.  At great loss of efficiency and at much lower cost, I could produce most of what we make at my shop without the major equipment, but using just small power tools.  This might be a good way to go for future shop classes.  After all, it's not so imporant that students have high productivity while in class as it is that they learn to think as woodworkers.  A woodworker's skill is knowledge, creative problem solving backed by lots of experience.  The start down the road toward knowledge could occur with simple tools as well as with the very best of what the industry partners can provide.  This might prove a practical approach as woodshop catches on again and there are many, many programs.  The industry will not be able to donate $600,000 to each of them.  At that point, other sources of funding will have to be found, or equipment will have to be simpler, or both.

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