Jonathan Schwartz’s lifelong love of tinkering started with woodworking in middle school, so it seems apropos that, over the last 10 years, the 47-year-old inventor and math teacher has reshaped the woodshop program at Colfax High School.
“The shop teacher retired 10 years ago,” Schwartz said. “We were going to close the shop down, but I took it over.”
Initially, Schwartz continued with a design-build curriculum while also teaching his calculus classes, but then he noticed something. When it came to understanding math concepts, Schwartz said, the light bulbs were clicking on more often for shop students than for the kids in calculus classes.
Woodshop died, and a pre-engineering class replaced it as Schwartz ignited a “maker culture” at the school.
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“It’s been a great mix – from calculus kids who are going to four-year schools to kids who aren’t going to college,” Schwartz said. “They’re all in the same class...and ironically, they’re all competing at the same math level.”
Schwartz’s classroom and shop are now a playground for tinkerers, inventors, innovators. The classroom boasts 18 computers with software to do computer-aided design and manufacturing, plus a 3-D printer. In the shop are two computer-controlled woodcutting machines, known as routers, plus a drill press, a band saw, sanding tables, sanders, a table saw and more. The printer, the computers and other equipment were acquired using a grant from Sierra College, Schwartz said.
His students’ standout product designs have won two $10,000 grants from the Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Program. Besides the cash, Schwartz said, students got a four-day trip to MIT where they presented their inventions and stood shoulder to shoulder with students from Silicon Valley schools or private preparatory academies.
Product ideas from Colfax students also have landed on the pages of Inventors Digest and have won the approval of Bill Nye the Science Guy, who hosted a popular PBS science series. Nye was a judge at the spring 2014 Quirky+GE Night of Invention at South by Southwest, in which General Electric and Quirky, the New York City-based invention company, chose products to bring to market.
Colfax students Autumn Turner and Hailey Elias submitted their product, a sensor that sits on the back of ski boots and vibrates if skiers lean back too far. It’s a gentle reminder to move forward into the correct position. Nye recommended that the product be developed, Schwartz said, but ultimately, Quirky didn’t select it.
This invention and many others from classes gone by decorate the walls and shelves of Schwartz’s classroom. He points to a poster of an underwater submersible craft, created by Colfax graduate Thomas Fulenwider, who is now at Schilling Robotics in Davis, working on submersible crafts. Last month, Colfax students visited him on a field trip.
“I loved it because I can say to kids, ‘What will you put up on my walls today that you will be doing in 10 years’ time?’” said Schwartz, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from UC Davis, and a master’s in math education from Harvard University.
Schwartz also is the inventor of the TopSaw, a multiuse tool that boasts as many as 12 gadgets in one. It’s for tree service workers who transport multiple saws but don’t want to carry a boxload of tools to fix them. While developing TopSaw, Schwartz received queries from consumers for YouTube “how-to” videos, something he had to learn to do. Consequently, he changed how his students submit their drawings, design files, programming and photographs. They now create a website with all documentation and a product video.
“It’s so cool to see,” Schwartz said, and “a lot better than grading a math test.”
Schwartz also created a YouTube channel called Colfax Math, where he posts how-to videos, teaching aids and more. His site so impressed publisher In-House Solutions that they asked Schwartz to write a just-released book on activities that help young people acquire science, technology, engineering and math skills while creating objects on a computer-controlled router.
Earlier this week, Schwartz told his students that a Southern California company recently agreed to manufacture and promote a new tree-felling wedge he created. Usually, a sledgehammer is used to drive the wedge into a tree to make it fall, Schwartz explained, but that kind of force can shake loose branches with dead wood, known as widowmakers.
While hoping his new wedge finds a market, Schwartz acknowledged that, if it fails, it would not be his first clunker. That dubious distinction goes to the Mity Miter, a device that bolts onto a chain saw and converts it for use in carpentry.
“I bring it out for the kids, so they can see that every inventor has boxes and boxes of bad ideas,” he said. “The thing I love about it is that, every time I bring it out, the kids are like, ‘Oh, man, why haven’t I seen it? It’s such a great idea.’
“And I’m like, ‘You want to buy one? I’ve got a few left.’”