Teacher to Teacher with Mark Smith

The following is a guest blog written by Mark Smith. Mark is a devoted industrial technology instructor and advocate for students pursuing manufacturing training. Here, he shares how he inspires and empowers students to learn by doing.

When it comes to learning new things, most of us are “do-ers,” meaning we learn by actually “doing” those things. I’m Mark Smith, an Industrial Technology teacher at Reed-Custer High School in Braidwood, Illinois and an Education Committee member of Woodwork Career Alliance of North America.

Our students use Mastercam to program toolpaths for our Thermwood CNC router and create a wide range of projects for themselves, their families, and friends. A program like Mastercam is ideal for learning by doing because students sit down with it and immediately start the “doing” process.

I have different levels on which students can engage with CAM. For example, in our Introduction to Technology class, I provide them with a file for their design work that indicates all the positions where their geometry needs to be imported into Mastercam. The toolpaths are set up so all they have to do is touch the geometry, regenerate the toolpath, and they’re ready to go. By keeping it simple to start with, they’re pleased with the fast results and are encouraged to proceed with more advanced operations.

In my CAD/CAM II class, which is the pinnacle for the subject, they get to use Mastercam the most. They design the geometry, import it, select the tools, and create the toolpaths. Then I have them touch the geometry and customize the toolpaths to do things like lead-in and lead-out. They also do tabs, depth-of-cuts, finish cuts, pockets, and so on, giving them quite a bit of programming experience.

I feel it is important to come up with a variety of projects for the students in order to build their enthusiasm through “doing” a host of operations using CAD/CAM and our CNC equipment. Among the things we have created over the years are wood eyeglass frames, personalized skateboards, cabinetry, and guitars, both acoustic and electric.

The latest and greatest thing we’re doing now is the Opendesk initiative. Opendesk, located in London, England, an open-source company that allows us to use their detailed plans for projects. They have a modern take on manufacturing furniture out of Baltic birch, much of it assembled without hardware and often even without glue.

We take their geometry files and bring them into Mastercam, frequently having to change the specs from metric to English standard. Because the furniture is all interlocking, students have to get their geometry and their tool size just right. Even after doing that, they go into their toolpath and tell it to back away from their geometry or go into it just a little bit so when their parts interlock they are dead-on.

The students get quite a workout in Mastercam, taking an existing file and making all the necessary measurement conversions, as well as programming in all their own personal touches before they cut and assemble the components. If you go to Opendesk, under the furniture menu you’ll find a lot of interesting projects such as tables, chairs, wall dividers, work desks, computer desks, all kinds of neat stuff.

I let the students pick the projects they’d like to do, so long as their budget permits. Again, I feel it is the actual “doing” that counts, whether from existing plans or your own creative imagination.