Not the traditional metal shop at RCHS
Cole Smith teaches more than how to shape metal; students learning practical skills they can apply in real world
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By Mira Brody  September 13, 2013 12:00 am

The classroom of M-1 may be nestled in the far corner of Rancho Cotate High School, but it is far from idle. Inside the large garage-type warehouse is a flurry of activity as students huddle around their individual computers during their Computer Aided Design (CAD) class before leaving campus for the day.

Instead of desks, they use stools and student-crafted workbenches. Instead of paper, they utilize a vinyl cutter, and in place of book reports, they design small models from their brand-new 3D printer.

Despite the name of the program’s original purpose, “metal shop” is far from the only thing these students do.

“We’re still building the program and trying to figure out what it is we’re doing here,” says Cole Smith, the teacher and brainchild behind the renovated shop. Before his arrival, this warehouse stood empty and silent for six years. “Metal is just a piece of it. We’ll use metals, we’ll use wood…we’ll use plastics.”

Boosting tech savvy

Because technology moves faster than schools can update their curriculum, Smith stresses the importance of keeping his students savvy on the logic behind the technology as well as universal skills, such as properly preparing them for whatever job climate will exist after graduation. While they’re definitely acquiring a certain skill set, they are also getting all the soft skills that go into being a good employee.

The classes offered include a freshmen survey course, animation and CAD, in which students essentially use computers to talk to the array of new machines in the room in order to carry out a function, functions that lead to large-scale projects. Senior Eli Kennemer explains there are basically two types of 3D design: business and architecture, as well as entertainment.

“In Sonoma County, it’s becoming mandated that in order to build anything, you need a 3D view, so that’s pretty much a brand new job field that has opened up,” says Kennemer, who is in three of Smith’s classes. “I always knew that I wanted to work with computers, I just never knew that it was specifically this until I got here.”

Stevie Curtin, also a senior, is taking her first animations class. “It’s so much more complicated then I thought it would be,” she notes.

After high school, it will take Kennemer two years to achieve the degree he wants; he’s hoping to receive financial aid for classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, scholarships that are funded through a Regional Occupation Program (ROP) if they notice a demand for certain jobs in our county.

The funding for RCHS’s new shop, however, was graciously supported by the Cotati Rohnert Park School District, who approved its reopening and continues to provide grants. These grants then pay for unit projects students will work on, such as the tiny house they built last year.

What’s in store for this semester’s class? An indoor hydroponic salsa garden, and by the end of the year – to send a camera into “near space” in order to collect data about the earth’s atmosphere.

“Getting the house out there really got the momentum started,” says Smith, referring to the student-built, completely self-sustaining “tiny house” which has been touring the county all summer. “It really gets them thinking about the infrastructure around them, about how they can take better care of it and be less of an impact on the environment.”

Even though most of it is fun, like printing an iPhone case from the 3D printer, or making T-shirt cannons out of PVC piping, the students are also experiencing the power their positive influence can have in the future.

“We’re the fast-food capital of Sonoma County by far, and we don’t have any food programs here,” says Smith on the inspiration behind their salsa garden, which will grow veggies, tomatoes, cilantro and peppers. And because it is hydroponic, healthy food can be grown at any time of year in larger quantities. 

Smith is also in the process of getting approval to turn the small patch of dirt outside the classroom into a fully functional outdoor learning garden, where teachers could hold lessons outside when the weather is nice.

Complete explanations

At the end of the week, students write a short blog explaining what they did, complete with photos and the use of technical terms acquired in lessons. Smith says this encourages students to become more aware of how vital their online persona is to potential employers, and it encourages them to continue presenting themselves online in a positive way.

“They need to learn how to learn, more than they need to learn how to do this one little thing,” he says of high school students.

Smith, who studied both philosophy and English, then taught the latter at Tech High, had always wanted to teach at the high school level and has held a great interest in physics and engineering. With such a rich variety of experiences, his belief in hands-on learning and his ability to connect with students, he appears perfect for what appears to be a successful new endeavor for RCHS.

So whether it’s designing and maintaining their own garden, shooting confetti out of a hand-made cannon or sending a probe up to take pictures of the earth’s curvature, it seems unsurprising if the students of Cole Smith’s classes will be the minds behind some amazing facets of our future.

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