For people born in the 1970’s and earlier, shop class was the place that most students first learned to design, build, and create. Today, shop class is on the endangered species list of educational programs. In this WTFFF?! episode brought to you live from the SoCal MakerCon show floor, Tom and Tracy Hazzard spend some time with Gene Sherman, the Founder and CEO of Vocademy, the world’s first education-focused makerspace. Listen to their conversation to learn about Gene’s mission to spread the knowledge of how to create and maintain education-based shop classes for all.
Listen to the podcast here:
Modern Shop Class With Gene Sherman Of Vocademy
I had a chance to visit Vocademy recently to meet with Gene Sherman, get a tour and a much better understanding of what Vocademy is all about and what makes it different. Vocademy is a makerspace, but not your average makerspace. It is a hybrid of a makerspace and an education institution of shop classes, STEAM labs, and workshops.
We’re here at SoCal MakerCon with Gene Sherman of Vocademy. Vocademy is a makerspace, but isn’t it more than a makerspace? Isn’t it also an educational organization trying to teach people? Can you give us a little bit of background on you and Vocademy for our readers?
I’ll explain the difference between most makerspaces and what Vocademy is. If you think of makerspace as a gym, a place that gives you access to the equipment you can’t afford to do with as you please with some basic lessons. We’re more like an Olympic training center where you can get trained on the basics, but then continue that education and get good. We’re not a trade school. A trade school takes you narrow focus and deep. We’re a place of exploration. Once you find that thing you love, learn as much as you can. Our point is, if you take a regular school, it tells you what, when, and how much to learn. That’s why we grew up. In our place at Vocademy, you decide what, when, and how much. If you change your mind, learn something else. Everything you learn makes you a more valuable human being. We’re a dream garage, an R&D lab, a little bit of trade school. We’re a shop class reinvented, is what we are.
What age groups does it span?
We’re focusing on fourteen and older. Any human being fourteen years and older can become a member and take all the classes or vice versa. You don’t need to be a member to take classes. You can take that knowledge with you and go to your work or your own shop or you can keep coming back and keep practicing and learning with us.
I was excited to learn about your company because the shop class has gone from many schools. I had it when I was in school and it made a big difference in my life to have that. It’s been sad for me to see it gone, but you’re founding a way to make it available to everybody and that’s admirable.
We’ve found the secret sauce to how to make it work. Whereas most makerspaces only have community members. The people that use the gym, I’ll go back to my Olympic training center analogy. I have countries sending me athletes. I have schools sending me students by the busload, and I have companies sending me employees to train because shop class has been gone for years. Engineering companies, manufacturing companies hired people that never had that beautiful thing called shop class than we had. That’s what we’re bringing back. The goal is 9:00 to 5:00 companies and education departments or systems pay the bills and my community benefits from us being able to be open 10:00 to 10:00 every single day.
We find it’s an issue because somebody might be able to get that deep level of training in one thing. When you have that broader experience, it makes you a better artist, designer, engineer, and it informs all of that.
That’s our goal. If you tell a young lady that she needs to take sewing, she’s going to look at you like you’re crazy, “I don’t want to work in a sweatshop.” If you tell the young lady she has the opportunity to learn textiles and electronics, that’s wearables. Wearables are our future. It’s all in the marketing of it. If you’re going to work in a factory, that sounds awful. You’re going to work at SpaceX or Tesla, it sounds appealing. One of the most popular things we teach is cosplay, costume, and prop making. What humans don’t realize, it’s industrial arts. It’s plastics and composites. It’s 3D printing. It’s laser cutting. It’s sewing. They’re learning these amazing, worthwhile, valuable skills, and they’re doing it while they’re doing something enjoyable.
They’re having fun. Imagine that.
God forbid. It can happen.
Kids can have fun.
What we’re also starting to do is, schools are starting to pay attention. Schools are calling us wondering about makerspaces and we thought, “How could we benefit them?” My future is 30,000 square foot facilities every half hour away so everyone has access. Schools can bus over their kids. We want to be the future of hands-on education. We’re not a trade school. Find your passion, get good at it. If you want to become a master, go to that school or go to that company that’ll mold you into the human they want. What we’re also doing is we’re offering turnkey makerspace consultation and systems. In other words, schools call us up all the time, “I have the funding. I have the space. What do I do?” We say, “Here’s our catalog. It’s coming soon. What do you want in there? Do you want 3D printers? Here’s the machine you should buy. Here’s the training we offer and here’s a curriculum to teach your students what to do with that equipment.”
It’s important. We’ve talked to many educators who are having difficulties figuring out how to teach it, what to teach, how to implement it. They know they want to do it and a lot of them do have access to funding, but they don’t know how to go about doing that.
The second large piece of our business is helping those schools with the answers, with the things that I’ve known for decades and we’ve developed. What’s amazing is, if you told me you have $500 and 500 square feet, I have exactly for you to do it. You’re going to get a paper cutting machine and you’re going to teach Pepakura paper craft. These kids are going to be doing 3D modeling out of cereal box paper.
They’re going to learn and then they’ll be ready for the next stage.
We want to be able to source the right equipment for them. When a science teacher gets handed a 3D printer and go, “I don’t know what to do,” we want to be that place. We’re also discovering that we’re a place that teaches teachers. We can allow teachers to get CTE credentialing or hours towards their credentials by taking classes from us. We’re teaching the teachers, which is my dream. I know shop classes are coming back and we know they’re going to need teachers. The gray hairs are all leaving. Someone’s going to need to replace the gray hairs not only in manufacturing and design and engineering in our schools.
We couldn’t agree more. When we met you and got to see what you’re doing, I loved that you focused on bringing in the art part of it as much. We believe that is critical. There are places you can go online, tutorials. It’s not the same thing as learning how to design.
Design intents. With 3D printing, if you don’t know CAD, you’re printing someone else’s toys. With CAD, with design intent, with knowing how materials behave because you’ve made it and broken it, you know how to create valuable things. There are engineers that have never made anything and never touched a screwdriver. I’m not going to hire you to design a $10 widget that costs me $20,000 to make. You have to know lean, intent, and tolerancing. Many companies go, “People don’t know that in a computer, they can put a one-inch peg into a one-inch hole.” No problem. In reality, you can. That’s the stuff we teach.
The thing is that, because you can have access to something like all of the different machines and all the different types of programs that you have, that’s useful. Even if you end up focusing on designing in one particular area, but that thing, you understand the other tolerances, the other constraints. It makes you a better engineer and designer. Also, a lot of people don’t have access. A lot of students don’t access to being able to get into a manufacturing facility, but having firsthand experience of some kind of manufacturing is a leg up.
We have something called Makerspace Days. We don’t make money on it. It’s $250 for 25 students. A busload of kids shows up. We do an interactive tour. We have twelve subject areas. We give them a demo, at least 5 or 6 of them. They get to see a young lady in her early twenties with blue hair giving them a welding demo. The girl’s eyes get big. They see guys sewing and the guys go, “I didn’t know we’re allowed to do that.” We also do a little engineering challenge and they get to take something home that they’ve made. Let me tell you, it hurts to see me leave because I know the school won’t give them more of that. That’s why I get to the administrator and say, “I’m your retention tool. I can fix your drop out rates.”
What we want to know is, are you going to be in Irvine?
What’s your vision of this all over? Where are you in your process?
We are becoming a makerspace management company. What is it we do? We have the playbook on how to run a makerspace. I’m the captain of a cruise ship. I have one cruise ship. We’re developing systems to where the machines, the staff, the instructors, and our clients interact beautifully. We are making a replicable system and then we stamp them out. We’re talking to six different locations in Southern California about where number two is going to be. It might be 2, 3, 4 quick. My reality is, I need an X amount of dollars. I need economic development and I need an educational system district to know that the students are going to be there when I open. I reach out to industries and say, “Send me your people to train. I’m going to solve your skills gap.” We found the way to do it. Irvine, I hope in the future. We’re looking at Pomona, Orange County, Burbank, Pasadena, Chatsworth, West LA, 3 or 4 in San Diego. Every 30-minute drive to have an Olympic training center like us.
That would be perfect for school.
Thank you for this because you’re helping me spread the word.
We want to. It’s needed. It’s part of our mission. This is missing from schools. We have children and we have to train them ourselves. We’re getting them as much extracurricular as we can. As they’re old enough to be able to get involved with the machines and the programs that you’re doing, we want them to be there.
What we have here is the maker movement at full speed. It’s growing. This event is twice as big as the previous one. This is a movement of play. We need to turn it into skills or we don’t benefit or it stays a play and people vessel.
I gave a speech here called Makers Making Profits. If you have that goal, it’s achievable. You’ve got to get the right training. You’ve got to go to the right places to get that.
We want to be that place. When I step into a community, I’m not going to be a Walmart to shut down your mom-and-pop makerspace. I want you to exist. We are an amazing place. You’ve got to realize that my place was not born of a huge investment. It’s all grassroots. It’s every penny I had in my savings. It’s a little bit of investment, a community coming together building the things we need, and companies coming on board to support us. There’s equipment in my place that I didn’t pay for because they realized the benefit I am for them.
I appreciate what you said there about competitors that don’t have to be competitors. It can be cooperative. We believe that fundamentally in business.
My goal is school retention and skills gap. Everyone else gets the benefit. If you’re an inventor with an idea, I’m as open to you as I am to anyone else. When the Olympic training center opens in your community, the gyms don’t go out of business. They feed each other.
We’ll have to keep this in mind because we do a lot of printer reviews and product reviews. We do offer up to them that if they send it to us from far away or wherever they can donate it. If they don’t want us to ship back a printer, we test, we donate it.
I’ll make sure it makes its way into a school or somewhere worthwhile or a small local makerspace. I had a lady who listened to me speak say, “My Computer Science students in my school want to do a DNA sampling machine. Where do I get equipment?” I’ll say, “Let me put you in touch.” That’s our goal here.
We’ll facilitate that if we have one.
I would love to have that.
Good luck with the rest of the show and thank you for taking the time to come and talk to us.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak.
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