by Kimberly Rivers

Peter Wachtel, a teacher at Adolfo Camarillo High School, is one of 50 semi-finalists in the national Harbor Freight Tools for Schools 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence competition. He is being recognized for creating an innovative product design and architecture program.

The teaching technique that I use is imagination,” said Wachtel. “Whatever is around you is worthy of exploration. The desire and love for what you do. Make it part of your life, the skills, experience, as well as the wisdom will come.” He explained that his goal in teaching and creating this program is to build unique classes for his students that are not offered anywhere else in the world. 

Wachtel points out that for many students, classes are made up of students in a single grade and based on academic level. His class, by contrast, provides an experience that mimics an actual work environment. Students in all grades at the high school enroll in his classes. “Students with GPA of a 1.0 all the way up to 4.7, every race and color and sexual preference, different intellectual capabilities,” are in his class, he said.

Peter Wachtel mentors students through classroom projects that mimic real world job experiences.

Wachtel was originally hired in Camarillo to take over the traditional woodshop and architecture programs, which “were antiquated,” he said. Upon approval from the principal, he “rewrote them, using college syllabi,” and developed the current Product Innovation and Design course, which qualifies students to receive “three college credits at any college in the U.S.” Now students in his class get real-world experience, working with companies and industry professionals designing products and, in some cases, printing the product based on client needs.

Wachtel described how class projects are similar to real world assignments from clients. Students will travel to a company’s offices and meet with executives to learn about the particular needs, then complete the project and present back to the company for feedback. He described one project where students met with executives at Six Flags to discuss new food kiosks at theme parks. Students went to Six Flags Magic Mountain, took measurements, assessed how the kiosks were used, and then developed and presented a design. Other projects included a themed cup for Universal Studios Harry Potter World, and redesigned habitats for animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Wachtel has only been teaching in Camarillo for three years, but throughout his 20-year career as an industrial designer he taught at the college level, including at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pratt Institute, Parsons School of Design and Otis College of Art and Design.

“Every day in the school they are having a real-world experience,” said Wachtel. This is enhanced with current-day equipment and tools. The 2,500-square-foot classroom includes a “makerspace workshop.” Traditional equipment such as hand tools and table saws is now sharing space with 3D printers and vacuum-forming machines.

The competition was started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, founder of Harbor Freight Tools. The program aims to recognize high school teachers across the country who are teaching the trades, developing skills aimed at preparing students for success after graduation in innovative and creative ways.

Eighteen contest winners will be announced in October and will split $1 million in prize money. Depending on placing, the teachers could win up to $100,000; a majority of the winnings are earmarked for enhancing educational programs, with a portion going directly to the teacher.