“I’ve always been a kid at heart, and what brought me to teaching is that I am always curious about things, how they work, how they were made, and if I could make a difference.”
Peter Wachtel began teaching after earning a master’s degree from the Pratt Institute. A dean there agreed to let him teach a course in toy design, and Wachtel was hooked. From there, he went on to teach at Parsons School of Design, Otis School of Design and Massachusetts Institute of Technology while also working as a designer and inventor for Mattel, Six Flags, Universal Studios and other companies.
Three years ago, Wachtel joined the staff at Adolfo Camarillo High School in Camarillo, California to teach product innovation, design and architecture. “I love bringing this experience to students,” Wachtel said. “They eat up the stories as well as the skills and see that it can be a lifelong creative career.” His approach, emphasizing creativity, draws students from every grade, and the number of female students quadrupled from eight to 32 in two years.
Reimagining an out-of-date woodshop program, Wachtel created his school’s product design and innovation pathway, which has since been adopted by 40 other high schools across the country. His curriculum combines manufacturing and building trades with arts and entertainment. Coursework is dual articulated with several community and state colleges, and aligned with the needs of businesses and the local carpenters’ union.
Wachtel draws on his background to bring students to Mattel to design toys and to the Santa Barbara Zoo to design animal habitats. Students also operate a business creating custom-made wooden items, including signs and cutting boards. They have raised over $6,000 in three years for Wachtel’s program.
Roughly 90 percent of Wachtel’s students pursue further education, studying engineering, architecture, design and trades. All develop career connections in the classroom, pursuing internships with Makerbot and Tinkercad and meeting leaders from Mattel, Universal Studios and other companies—they even created products for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The partnerships with local companies has brought Wachtel media and community attention, which he hopes to use to bring more interest to skilled trades education.
Wachtel was a finalist for the 2018 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.
“Our classes are my students’ favorite part of the day, as well as mine. We get to be ourselves, think, explore, design, build and create things that never existed before.”