Five years ago, Danny Beesley, a carpentry teaching assistant at the time, saw how many schools across the country were installing fabrication laboratories. These workshops allowed students to work with computer-controlled manufacturing tools and design software to create almost anything, from laser-cut lamps to 3D printed jewelry. He thought these labs might help provide students with the skills needed to get jobs and perhaps even help create new high-tech industries.
Beesley pitched the idea for one to Cynthia Correia, who headed the carpentry department at Oakland’s Laney College.
“We collectively brainstormed a plan and then pitched it to the president of the college,” said Beesley.
At the time, Oakland had just turned its focus to increasing science, technology, engineering and design (STEM) education in the district. Beesley’s idea also coincided with the rise of maker education across the country, which encouraged students to create products using their STEM skills. Since 2012, there have been over 400 Maker Faires organized around the world, including one that President Barack Obama held in the White House in 2014.
Beesley thought that fabrication laboratories, or FabLabs, were a natural fit in Oakland’s curriculum. He was excited by the opportunity to provide students with hands-on learning and potentially spark their interest in STEM-related careers like architecture and engineering.
He also figured that the school officials would readily support the idea. Representatives from the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) have been vocal in their support of STEM, from creating career paths for aspiring computer scientists to cultivating industry partnerships with companies like Intel and Salesforce.
But Beesley’s experiences have been anything but easy. He has struggled to develop the space, hire staff and incorporate the program into the school curriculum because of budget constraints and bureaucracy.
“One of the big issues was getting the people in charge of facilities and grounds to be responsive,” he said. “We requested internet in the building, and it took them almost two and a half years to get it installed. In the meantime, we were running off of a 3G [wireless] hub.”
Beesley believes his ambitions are caught between the district’s needs and bureaucratic realities, especially as he tries to expand the program to other schools within Oakland.
“I’ve been a local advocate [of FabLabs] for five years,” said Beesley. “I had to remind people over and over, provide proof and provide examples [of how the FabLab model works]. Ultimately, I had to donate most of my time to build the space locally in order to create that so they can stand back and see what I’m talking about. This is what’s valuable.”
Beesley has always had a passion for working with tools. As a child growing up in Nevada, he spent summers working with his general contractor father on construction projects. He dug his first ditch at the age of ten.
“Our garage was full of tools,” Beesley said. “The more that I learned how to use them, the more helpful I became to him. I did a lot of other activities, like taking apart broken electronics and things in the house.”
By the time he graduated high school, he was already an experienced carpenter.
Following several years doing construction work in Las Vegas, Beesley moved to the Bay Area, where he ended up at Laney College and got a job as a teaching assistant in the carpentry department. Beesley was so effective in his work that he was soon hired full-time as an instructor.
When Beesley initially pitched the FabLabs concept, school administrators had an almost Pavlovian response. At the first mention of “shop class,” they withdrew, driven by a stigma against “dirty” or “blue-collar” work.
“The school districts typically have a stance that if you get dirty doing the work, it’s a bad thing,” said Beesley with a sigh. “I don’t agree with that. I think that’s just what certain people are interested in, and you should allow that. But that stigma has made it difficult to sell the concept.”
Forced to try a different tactic, Beesley tried reframing the program as a “hands-on, STEM education facility.” He’s found administrators within the district much more receptive to the idea.
Beesley said it helped that Castlemont High School teacher Timothy Bremner championed the idea. Bremner saw the program’s potential in building a bridge between Castlemont and Laney College, where Beesley was still working to get the administration on board. He helped Beesley set up the first FabLab as part of Castlemont’s Sustainable Urban Design Academy.
“It was essentially him seeing the value of the idea,” he said. “Once that happened, it was actually pretty quick–it was just a matter of moving some logistics around.”
The Castlemont FabLab operated as an afterschool program for the first year. Beesley describes beginning months of the program as a free-for-all, where he encouraged his small band of students to pitch their own projects. They worked together to build handcrafted items ranging from laser-cut lamps and jewelry to chairs constructed with computer-controlled tools.
“I would feed them project ideas, but for the most part I just made myself available to them,” he said.
After handing off the reigns to Bremner, Beesley established a second FabLab at Laney College as an extracurricular program. Students, faculty and staff could use the space to work on personal projects once they completed training to learn how the machines work. One student has used the workspace to make custom parts for the dashboard of his 1980 Volvo. Another has built over 30 laser-cut lamps, which he’s been able to sell commercially on online marketplaces like Etsy.
Beesley, however, faces more hurdles. Although he has gotten the support to build these labs, they are still treated as extracurricular programs because OUSD has no money to support it. In addition, while Beesley wants the Laney College FabLab to be incorporated into the school’s curriculum, the process is slow, potentially taking up to two years to go through the system.
In the meantime, he’s continuing to focus on using the machine workshops to educate and inspire as many students as possible.
On one Friday afternoon, Gabriel Cardozo, a 17-year old from Albany High School, shuffled into the Laney College FabLab to work on a project. He found only Beesly inside.
Without funding for a larger staff, there was no one else present to supervise Cardozo in the lab. Beesley was forced to turn him away for the afternoon.
“They had no class today and he came here on BART,” he said. “It’s unfortunate when you see that type of initiative. He just took BART for 35 minutes to come here specifically to use the lab and wasn’t able to.”
But Beesley remains determined to demonstrate FabLab’s merit to Oakland school administrators. He’s been working to get all of the principals within OUSD to visit the Laney College FabLab.
“My personal mission is to get these types of programs installed in as many schools as I can get access to,” he said. “It’s very important for us to be not only giving our students access to a hammer at young ages, but also access to 3D printers and technologies that are developing entire new industries around us.”