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Industrial Arts

If you have any fear for the future of America, visit a FIRST Robotics League competition. Your worries will simply melt away.

Three days with my son’s team (2491 No Mythic) at the Northstar Regionals, where we were knocked out in the Finals, constantly percolated with passion, grace, and ingenuity. The 800 plus high-schoolers in Mariucci Arena, and another 800 next door in Williams Arena, redefined competition beyond the unique sport that is something like hockey with robots. These kids make things happen and realize their visions together. As enthusiastically as they learned by doing, however, their drive showed that something might be missing from their school experience.

Call it shop class, call it “technical education”, use whatever words you want. These are the citizens that will make the world of tomorrow in their image, if only they have the tools to do it. That cries out for a revival and resuscitation of the Industrial Arts in a way that I have never seen contemplated before.

Industrial Arts - it's not just for the 19th Century anymore!

Industrial Arts – it’s not just for the 19th Century anymore!

The term “Industrial Arts” was developed in the late 19th Century to describe a well-rounded vocational education. Kids streaming into developing High Schools throughout urbanizing America were often put into two tracks – one vocational, leading to a job, and the other rhetorical, leading to college. By 1900 a core curriculum of skills was assembled for every young man (always men back then) who wanted to land a skilled job in this nation that made things. It helped define and shape the blue collar life, a step above exploitive poverty, as much as labor unions.

The concept evolved through the 20th Century, especially as technology progressed. It also devolved into “shop class”, often thought of as a lesser calling below a well-rounded liberal arts education. By the end of the century it had become almost completely extinct in any organized form. Periodic calls for more vocational training in school are usually met with a hot fury along the lines of “You think our kids aren’t good enough for college?”

The arguments for and against an Industrial Arts education are both wrong. Every visionary needs the skills necessary to render the new reality they want to create.

The Robettes of Visitation School, who won the Regional at Mariucci Arena

The Robettes of Visitation School, who won the Regional at Mariucci Arena

Robotics League is full of kids who will go on to careers in engineering, sciences, and general entrepreneurship in ways we hardly have language to describe today. They may or may not make parts in a machine shop for a customer, but there’s a good chance they will need to prototype. Even if that doesn’t happen, devices they design might be put out to bid against a competition that knows how to shave costs in the manufacturing process. There are many reasons to understand how things are made in this world.

While you can learn a lot of these skills simply by doing in Robotics League or even on the job, a solid grounding in the fundamentals should be a top goal for any high school that wants its students to be ready for the next economy and set to turn their imagination loose on the world.

What are these Industrial Arts that the kids should know? The five original Industrial Arts have been augmented with new technologies requiring new skills. Here is a way of looking at them, organized somewhat historically but also in degree of technical difficulty.

Original Industrial Arts Interim Arts Advanced Arts
Carpentry / Joinery Electrical Accounting
Metalwork / Smithing Plumbing CAD
Masonry / Pottery Welding Control Systems / Electronics
Upholstery / Sewing Mechanics / Power Transmission Programming
Glasswork Engines Bioprocessing
Painting / Coating Advanced Ceramics
The future belongs to those who have the tools to make it happen.

The future belongs to those who have the tools to make it happen.

Which ones should kids learn? Let’s start with a good understanding of all of them in a broad overview. A student might find that she has a real knack for welding or control systems and want to learn more, leading on to a focused advanced class. It may be for a career or as preparation for engineering school, or even just for the fun of knowing how things work in this world.

Let’s consider, too, what wonderful work kids could do as part of their education.  The first course might end with the building of a brick grill and hearth in a public park, the second at a public garage for people who can’t afford to have their car fixed, and the last with something truly innovative and new.

There is a hunger for skills that make a difference in the world today. Kids who can take pieces of aluminum and electric motors onto the field to smash into opponents can make just about anything. They do it together in Robotics League, learning the value of leadership, organization, and teamwork as valuable life lessons. But at the heart of it are those old Industrial Arts, the skills that turn vision into reality.

Set today’s kids loose with these basic technologies and the only reason to fear tomorrow is that they might build a world far too fantastic for us to ever understand.

20 thoughts on “Industrial Arts

  1. Shop class taught me a lot that helped me in life more than on the job. Its worth it no matter what. But the middle column of trades reminded me of the Menard’s ad, “plumbing, electrical, appliances too”. 🙂 If you think of it as nothing more than knowing how to use a store like Menard’s or Home Depot to fix things a class like this would be a huge benefit to everyone.

    • Ha! Hadn’t thought of that. But yes, everyone needs to know these things, or at least be familiar with them. Perhaps a scaled-down version might be a good required course, along the lines of Home Economics (though I am generally against required courses).

  2. I am so in agreement with this. All of our kids should come out of school ready for Star Fleet academy. Everyone a solid engineer but specializing through further training. It would bring few tears to my eyes to see our education system doing that.. turning out thousands of engineers who then turn to the arts, agriculture and so on as it suits them.

    • I am assuming you are sarcastic, so I’ll respond accordingly. I’m not in any way suggesting we replace a liberal arts education, but supplementing it – and making a solid option available for those who want it. Many kids really do want to know these things and they should have that option.

      • I apparently did not communicate well. I am all for taking students and teaching them engineering basics, fit for advanced engineering degrees… then let them take additional training to follow the path that they desire.

        I’m saying that it should not just be an option. Knowing how to use math and physics is not an option, and as we move forward it will become less of an option, even for those that go into liberal arts and other non-engineering vocations.

        Hard sciences should be the minimum… critical thinking, analytical skills… these are useful in every field of endeavor and as we educate them now, it is left to the student to pick it up so we play russian roulette with the outcome of our investments in education.

        That’s just silly.

      • OK, we are in agreement, then, mostly. 🙂 I’m not sure about “required courses” generally, as I think that a well guided student should be able to gain whatever knowledge they want.
        But yes, some level of this kind of thing as a “Home Economics” course should be available.
        Thinking this through, some kind of resource available for everyone, including adults, is not a bad idea at all. Community / Technical colleges do have the resources to provide this and there are many classes around, but it seems a bit haphazard. Perhaps a Center for Industrial Arts located here in my city of St Paul could make an example and start the process rolling as an option for students young and old.
        But I do think that something like this should be available for free to everyone as a kind of minimum. How much we “require” in high school is another debate.
        And I agree completely on critical thinking and analytical skills. Heck, I could write a number of posts on ideas for education, and I have a few. I like the idea of “overview” courses that ground students in basics and make it easier for them to know how to select what they want to know more about.

      • I believe that you are in complete agreement with me. We quibble only on verbage. From 5th grader to retiree, education is the answer. My particular bent is that supoprt for this should be required of local industry and commercial interests. Such free classes and education should be paid for by those most likely to benefit from it. Let’s keep the fed out of it. It is an opportunity for a city to delineate itself from others as being home of the best educated citizens etc. A point of pride and a boon for local industry. This, I think, is the way forward. I have contributed to FIRST and I think it is wonderful stuff, but we need more. We need a larger scope and a larger engagement.

  3. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate that you have accounting on the list. Anyone who wants to run their own business needs to know a little bit about how accounting works just to be able to manage their books and to understand what we do for them. I can’t tell you how much time I spend going over the statements and explaining things they should already know. Its usually off the clock too.

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  9. I agree with almost all of this. But I don’t really see the logic in the “original,” “interim,” and “advanced” hierarchy you lay out.

    • It’s really about the equipment needed and the level of skill. It may not be important at all. I do think that it’s generally going to be best to start with the original ones and work to higher skills, but some people are going to have an interest in the advanced ones right away, yes.

      • Hmmm When I was in Jr. High some people took “print shop.” It was actually lining up and clamping together pieces (letters, etc) of metal type in a case and using the assembly to print the way Gutenberg or Ben Franklin did it. No doubt it was a relatively demanding trade to learn but even then, fifty years ago, it seemed anachronistic. Does anybody remember how to use a slide rule, or extract a square root by inside out long division? How important is it to know how to do accurate metalwork with a vise, file, and hacksaw? How valuable is spinning and weaving by hand, or making wooden canoes? I don’t know. Suspect kids making robots are not interesting in antique methods of work for their own sake…..

      • You are right! Thinking about it, the way kids get interested is that they want to build robots. They start with legos and learn to bolt and rivet and machine. Some of them then want to go back and have solid instruction on the real basics of machining or similar. But it starts out with a desire to make something useful and fun, usually something which has a lot of different skills tied together.

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  11. Basically, what I get from this article is that our kids should grow up to be more like Hank Hill, and frankly, I agree.

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