Colfax High School

Students at Colfax High School, Colfax, California, apply academic learning, develop flexible thinking and acquire marketable skills in the Design Tech program. Thirty students rotate through four classes – metal and wood shops, computer and electronics – spending four and half weeks in each discipline. In each of these classes they contribute to their final project – a solar powered drag racer featuring a metal chassis, custom made circuit board, student designed sticker package and a wood body. The students learn to use advanced manufacturing technology such as a computer numerical control (CNC) router which is used to build the wooden body and a CNC plasma cutter which is used to build the metal chassis of the drag racer. Near the end of the class, students face off their cars in a school-wide race.

Unique technical education program
Traditional vocational training courses such as wood and metal shop focus on preparing students for careers as cabinetmakers, machinists and auto mechanics. Today’s working world involves a much more varied range of careers but these careers do have one thing in common. They all require the ability to utilize advanced technology tools in order to succeed and advance. The Colfax High School Design Tech program incorporates both academic instruction and practical use of advanced technology to prepare students for the wide range of occupations that involve working with metal, wood, computer and electronics. The students can aim for careers as varied as jewelry making, repairing ski lifts, designing green buildings and building robots. “Our vision is to engage all students in applied learning,” said Jonathan Schwartz who teaches the Design Tech course. “Students have the opportunity to imagine, design and make something while applying academic principles learned in science, math, English or any subject.”

Wood shop technology
Colfax High School has used two of Techno’s LC CNC routers for several years in its wood shop program. Students use computer aided design (CAD) software to define the geometry of their projects to extremely high levels of accuracy and detail. They can also zoom in and out on their projects and view them from any angle. After they are happy with the design, they convert the geometry into a CNC program and download it to the Techno LC router. The Techno router then produces the design by removing material from a block of wood or plastic. The resulting accuracy is far greater than the student could have achieved by using traditional hand or power tools. Building a prototype also forces the students to resolve issues that would be too easy to gloss over in a computer model. Just exactly how do pieces fit together? How does the user hold the product? How does it fit in with other products that it is to be used with? This approach also has the benefit that additional pieces can be made simply by setting up the machine and watching it work.

The high school selected the Techno LC router because it provides ball screws on all three axes, offering smooth motion, a high level of accuracy and repeatability and minimal maintenance. A closed loop servo control system provides constant position feedback, higher power, and smooth continuous motion, eliminating the possibility of losing position in the middle of a part. The machine is available in five sizes, with work envelopes of 30 by 24 inches, 50 by 48 inches, 50 by 96 inches, 59 by 120, and 78 by 120. Each of these models provides a repeatability of 0.001 inches, a resolution of 0.0002 inches and a maximum speed of 250 inches per minutes. The machine comes fully assembled and includes Techno’s Windows-based CNC G-code interface with free lifetime software upgrades.

Caitie Pedersen, a former student at Colfax High School, used the CNC router to make Corian molds that she used to make chocolate bars. “I made candy bars with the school name on it,” Pedersen said. Pedersen is currently going to culinary school and planning to be a pastry chef. She sees the potential for starting a business based on making the chocolate bars and other types of candy to customer designs. The customers could potential submit either sketches or their own designs in the form of CAD files. Pedersen would then use the router to cut a mold that exactly matches the customer’s design. “The CNC router greatly reduces the cost of making custom food designs,” Pedersen added. “As a result, it should make open up the potential for people to create a lot of interesting new businesses.”

Metal shop technology
The solar drag racer project is interesting because it utilizes the full range of technologies taught in the Design Tech program. Students rotate through four classes: electronics, wood shop, metal shop and computers, in groups of 25 to 30. In each class they work on a contribution to drag racer. In the wood shop class for example, students use CAD software to design the body of their car and also a toolbox. Then they use the CNC router along with a table saw, band saw and sanders to build the car body and toolbox.

Creating the metal chassis involves some interesting new technology. The school purchased a Techno CNC plasma cutter which cuts steel and other materials with a plasma torch. The torch blows a gas at high speed out of a nozzle while an electrical arc is formed through that gas from the nozzle to the surface being cut. The energy begins to break apart the gas molecules. The electrons separate from the nucleus, forming a type of matter called plasma. When the fast-moving electrons collide with other electrons and ions, they release large amounts of energy. This energy is what gives plasma its unique status and amazing cutting power. The plasma is sufficiently hot to melt the metal being cut and moves sufficiently fast to blow molten metal away from the cut. A plasma cutter can pass through metals with little or no resistance.

The Techno CNC plasma cutter is easy for the students to learn because it uses the same standard G-code files as the CNC router. This machine offers automatic torch height control which helps maintain cut quality on both thicker and thinner materials. A breakaway torch mount protects the torch in the case of an accident, saving $300 to $500 to replace the torch body not to mention the consumables. Techno CNC plasma cutters accept industry standard GCODE programs so they can be driven by programs developed with the same software used with Techno CNC routers and most other machine tools. Having the flexibility to work with standard software makes it easier to use and learn to how to operate a CNC machine. Techno CNC plasma machines have a welded and ground single piece frame that supports heavy steel workpieces with ease. The machines arrive fully assembled. All that is required for installation is plugging in the electrical and pneumatic lines.

Race to the finish
In addition to the CNC plasma cutter, students use the drill press and various hand tools to create the metal chassis, display stands and a tool tray. Students learn how to solder and build the circuit boards in the electronics section of the class. After the students complete all four sections of the class and build their racers, they race their cars against the other students. The cars are also judged based on their creativity, color schemes, body design and workmanship. Approximately 120 cars compete against each other and are judged for the final event.

“Technology is becoming increasingly important to a wide range of industries and careers and knowledge of technology is also important in starting many types of businesses,” Schwartz said. That’s why we have done a complete makeover on the traditional metal shop, wood shop, and other vocational training classes. Our classes combine the academics needed for students to understand the technology with practical skills that are essential for success in a wide range of careers and businesses. Using Techno equipment for routing and plasma cutting gives us great consistency throughout our shop. Techno equipment is very easy to use and rugged which makes it ideal for use in the educational environment. Yet Techno equipment has also the accuracy to produce industrial quality products so in many cases are students will be using the same equipment on the job. We also appreciate the excellent technical support provided by the Paton Group.”