Oakland’s New Fab Labs Remake Vocational Education

Shop class is anything but boring these days with high-tech shop studios equipped with 3-D milling machines, laser cutters, and computers the stuff of shop teachers’ dreams.


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Teacher Tim Bremner is turning Castlemont High School students Luis Muniz, left, and Samaiya Abdullah into makers at the school’s Fab Lab. The program moves to Laney College this fall.

Photo by Chris Duffey

Maria Jessa Arlantico, a junior at Castlemont High School, was tinkering with some cardboard construction models on a recent afternoon at the East Oakland school’s new Fab Lab woodshop. She wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a woodworker. All she knew is what she didn’t want: boring.

“I like the process, building something out of nothing,” she said while adjusting the miniature garden archway she was working on. “It’s math, measurements, scales … It’s fun. What’s out there in the garden now is boring. I want to change it.”

Fun and “not boring” are the top priorities for the Fab Lab, which has been so successful in its first year at Castlemont it’s expanding to Laney College this fall. The high-tech shop studio combines design, math, entrepreneurship, computer skills, job training, and creativity in a way meant to inspire students and provide something that’s been missing from most local schools for at least a decade: old-fashioned vocational education.

“My whole goal was to bring back skilled trades into schools,” said Danny Beesley of Alameda, a former carpenter who’s spearheading the Fab Lab in Oakland. “The name doesn’t really matter. I’ll call it whatever I have to, to see it work.”

Oakland’s Fab Labs are a spinoff from an idea that originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 2000s. A Fab Lab is typically a design space that includes laser cutters, 3-D milling machines called CNCs, and plenty of computers. They’re what your high-school shop teacher could only dream about.

Beesley, who grew up building houses with his general contractor father, decided to bring Fab Labs to Oakland because he felt students were being shortchanged by the cuts to vocational education. Only two schools in Oakland Unified School District still have wood shops, the rest a victim of budget cuts.

“I had a little bit of a selfish motivation—I wanted to be around all this fancy equipment,” he said. “But really, it’s because I love to build stuff. I thought students should have the opportunity to be exposed to all this great technology, learn how to operate these machines, get job training.”

Both the Castlemont and Laney Fab Lab, which is scheduled to open this fall, are funded by state education grants. Tim Bremner, a teacher at Castlemont who heads that school’s Sustainable Urban Design Academy, said the Fab Lab has, quite simply, “kept me in teaching.”

“Vocational ed has been obliterated over the past 10 or 20 years,” he said. “But this is a chance to innovate, to grow. We’re building a whole curriculum around it—economics, policy, energy, green building. It’s a lot more than design and manufacturing.”

At Castlemont, and soon at Laney, students design and build projects to address real-world problems. On a recent afternoon at the Fab Lab, students were designing improvements for the campus: a pop-up fruit stand and lunch area; a new home economics classroom with natural light and pivoting doors; interactive sculptures such as a shade structure shaped like a tree; and a re-configured parking lot.

More than 150 of the school’s 450 or so students have spent time in the Fab Lab since it opened last year. Some even made money on the project, making wooden keychains for the Port of Oakland emblazoned with the iconic shipping cranes.

Luis Muniz, a senior, said his experiences in the Fab Lab inspired him to seek a career in architecture. He spent his summer working on a plan to refurbish the school’s lunch area, creating cardboard models of benches, trees, tables, shade areas, and an outdoor kitchen.

“I’m learning how to measure without a ruler, how to think abstractly, how to draw, sculpt, use my imagination,” he said. “Why did I decide to design a new lunch area? I just wanted a change. It’s time for something different.”

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