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TechShop Inside is a modern shop class on wheels

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Once upon a time it was a mainstay of American education: shop class -- a place where students learned to use common tools to build, create and repair just about anything their hearts desired. This curriculum is all but gone from most schools, but a spiritual successor is worming its way into some Silicon Valley after school programs. It's called TechShop Inside, and it's a 24-foot trailer outfitted with laser cutting machines, 3D printers and an arsenal of traditional tools. Its mission? Teach America's students how to design, prototype and manufacture their dreams. On Friday, the mobile TechShop made its first stop in San Francisco's Sunset district; we dropped by to check it out.

Inside TechShop's Mobile Workshop For Kids

TechShop's Mel Olivares walked us through the Inside lab before introducing the mobile maker space to San Francisco middle schoolers for the first time, explaining that it's more of a packed up classroom than a trailer full of gear. "We have an incredible modular rail system that everything locks into. Not only do you have industrial security, but you also have the ability to take every piece of equipment and just pop it out." The trailer's work benches can be used as competent workspaces as-is, but they can also be removed and set up in classrooms or outdoor spaces.

The trailer's walls are lined with assorted hand tools - saws, screwdrivers, wire cutters and more - as well as more advanced toys: four UP Mini 3D printers, two laser cutter / engravers and an army of Fujitsu laptops kitted out with 3D modeling and printing software. "We're hoping that teachers will build this into their curriculum," Olivares says. "The kids will have finished products and models and they'll actually have an understanding of manufacturing. Who knows how to manufacture anything in this country anymore? We do. We're bringing it back."

Friday's outing was little more than a tour for the kids at AP Gianni Middle School - a taste of what's to come. With the exception of helping TechShop staff clean up some 3D printed endcaps created to fit over the workbench's sharper edges, there were no projects for the kids this week, but that should change on subsequent visits. In any case, the students are excited. "It was really cool!" I heard one excited student on his way out of the demo. "I want to build, like, a Pikachu that says my name on it with the 3D Printer."

The school's older students seemed less excitable, but immediately recognized the value of the program. "It's really cool," one eighth grade girl told me. "The school rarely gets this and I think it's really good experience for everybody here."

TechShop's visit with the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center's afterschool program at AP Gianni is just a start: the group is currently talking with schools and libraries in San Francisco, Los Altos, Santa Clara and beyond. If the program takes off, it'll be a worthy (and relevant) successor to the wood shop programs of yore.

[Final image credit: Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center (SNBC)​]

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