When I jumped into teaching nearly 20 years ago, I had no formal training and very little idea of how to run a classroom.  But I did have an intuitive sense that I needed to establish trust, forge relationships, and build a healthy classroom environment.  There were many challenges during those first years, but perhaps the most difficult was ensuring that each and every student in my classes had the support and resources they needed to succeed.  I didn’t have the language to express it at the time, but what I was wrestling with were equity and inclusion.

If asked, I believe most people would agree that equity and inclusion are important goals of our educational system, but might have a hard time actually defining these terms, especially equity vis-à-vis equality.  So, before we go any further, I’d like to start with some definitions.

Equality is striving to ensure everyone has the same opportunities and resources, which is certainly a noble goal. 

Equity goes a step further and recognizes that, since students are not the same, schools should acknowledge and respect differences when allocating resources. Through this lens, it is equitable rather than unfair for some students – e.g., previously disadvantaged students – to receive more resources than others as schools attempt to build an equitable playing field.

Inclusion seeks to ensure that every student has a voice, is an active participant in determining their own educational path, and is a respected part of building the educational environment and community at their school. 

This goes beyond holding annual diversity assemblies or after-school club fairs. It means actively seeking out new voices who might have been excluded when school norms and policies were first established. 

At the classroom level, it means inviting every student to be a part of building a safe and supportive classroom environment. It might even mean adjusting routines to ensure that everyone feels welcome and included.

These concepts of equity and inclusion are fundamental goals for any dedicated teacher and are embedded in many major educational policy measures and teaching trends. Every year, new laws and policies are proposed in an effort to improve education.  While the names and mechanics change, they are usually grounded by the same relatively simple and universally appealing ideal: every student in America, regardless of background or socioeconomic status, deserves to be able to reach their full potential.

So, what does this have to do with CAD software?

CAD as a Powerful Teaching Tool

helping a student
Matt Shields teaching a student about hexadecimal numbers in 2019.

In the 16 years I taught high school, I found CAD software – specifically cloud-native CAD – to be one of the most powerful tools available to increase equity and inclusion in my classroom. I know that sounds like a stretch; allow me to provide some background.

My last 13 years in the classroom were at a school where about half of the students live below the poverty line. My town of Charlottesville, Virginia, also serves as a home to refugees from all over the world and over 50 languages were spoken in my school’s hallways. 

I always sought to create equitable and inclusive classrooms, but I felt like I was missing the mark until about eight years ago when I threw out my old curriculum and wrote a new engineering curriculum from scratch with CAD at the center. 

When writing curriculum, it is important to keep your students front and center, and the differences that each of them embodies. Regardless of where you live or what grade level you teach, a class of 30 students is 30 unique individuals. I find it helpful to consider these differences in terms of three categories: background, interest and readiness level.

My students were beautifully diverse, so thinking about background meant considering a broad range of norms, customs, and expectations. I had students coming from consecutive generations of doctors sitting next to students who had not one college graduate in the family. And their interests were as diverse as their backgrounds. Some of my students woke up in the morning thinking about music, others lived and breathed sports, while others were motivated primarily by their familial relations.

In terms of readiness level, my school system was no different than most in that it employed an army of resources to ensure that every student was performing “on grade level,” but the myriad factors that a school can’t control meant that students walked into my classroom with very little in terms of common skills and understandings. 

In engineering, I had students who had been tinkering with robotics kits since they were in diapers in the same class as students who had never held a screwdriver or a wrench.

Curriculum with CAD at the Center

helping students with CAD
Every student can access Onshape, which makes lessons more engaging.

For years, I struggled to write curriculum that spoke to all of this heterogeneity. Lectures that resonated with my native English speakers fell flat on the rest. Activities that inspired my lower-income students didn’t work with their more affluent peers. 

When I decided to rewrite my curriculum as completely project-based, things started to fall into place. I realized that my previous curriculum essentially had me – and all of my limitations and biases – at the center. My new project-based learning (PBL) put the students – and their unique interests and proclivities – at the center. PBL allowed for student choice, voice, and creativity to flourish. 

From day one, I was adamant that the projects my students spent their time on would be of high quality; students would be proud of their work. That basically meant that my students needed to become expert designers and engineers, thus the need for Computer-Aided Design, or CAD. Every project, big or small, that my students worked on first needed to be designed and refined in CAD.

This was my first breakthrough in terms of creating a truly equitable classroom. For the first time, I had students of all backgrounds, some who spoke almost no English, creating and learning together. They could discover knowledge and demonstrate mastery in ways that worked for them.

CAD Software for Schools

The real breakthrough came when I found Onshape, the only truly cloud-native CAD platform. With Onshape, my students and their creativity were not bound to the computer lab or even by the school walls. They could take their school-issued Chromebooks on the bus or to their house and continue working and designing. With Onshape, my students’ creativity was truly unbound.

This advantage was only emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic. Across all sectors of society, the pandemic often magnified and exacerbated existing inequality. During two years of remote learning, many students without resources and support fell behind in their studies. My own students lamented the difficulty of staying on top of their math and history lessons over Zoom. I felt lucky that Onshape enabled me to pivot relatively seamlessly.

With Onshape, my engineering students were able to continue designing, creating, and collaborating unimpeded. Every day, I loved checking in with my students to see how their designs were progressing and how they were even using Onshape to express themselves outside of engineering class.  

Working from home, or in some cases from community centers or public parks on school-issued Chromebooks, I had students designing costumes and props for theater, dog houses, birdhouses, skate ramps, baby rattles, picture frames, and phone cases. My students logged more hours designing in Onshape during the pandemic than before.

My last year in the classroom was probably my favorite. I had achieved a goal that was two decades in the making: young people from all backgrounds – empowered by a professional-level design platform – free to express themselves, create, and learn. On their own terms.

Others are realizing this as well. Each day, more and more educators are leveraging cloud-native CAD in the classroom, too. You can read all about their experiences on the Onshape blog.

Get Started with Onshape Education

Onshape for education brings CAD out of the computer lab and into the modern era.