Peter Wachtel is that wacky, wonderful teacher you’ll always remember. Engaging and fun, he allows imaginations to run wild in class.
The industrial technology instructor helps students use the tools, computers and machines that enable them to experience the process of translating a rough idea into a finished product. Nearly 170 of them take his classes in product innovation and design, computer-aided drafting (CAD) or architecture.
Wachtel started at Camarillo (Calif.) High School in August 2016, but he’s no stranger to the classroom. For over 20 years, he’s taught at prestigious institutions: Pratt Institute, Parsons School of Design, Otis College of Art and Design, Art Center College of Design, The Art Institutes and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His goal? Bringing college-level education to high school.
As the inventor of many products and holder of multiple patents, he is able to share what it’s like to invent, design and produce real-world products.
Wachtel and his students are relatively new to SkillsUSA but excited to expand their knowledge and test their skills. “This is our first year,” he explains. “We implement different parts of the SkillsUSA curriculum into our classes so that all students are involved and participate.”
Students who enter his program may have an interest in design and invention, but most have not thought about a future in industrial design. Through project-based learning, they’re introduced to a variety of possible career paths: industrial designer, toy designer, entertainment designer for theme parks, set designer, architect, prop designer, manufacturer, drafter or model maker. These paths tie to postsecondary programs and offer good starting salaries. All of Wachtel’s classes are articulated for three credits at any U.S. college or university.
Imagination and innovation
Wachtel makes class more exciting by bringing many real-world projects inside the classroom. The students built logo breadboards for The Cave, a restaurant at a local winery. They designed Harry Potter souvenir cups for Universal Studios, a project that included a research outing to the theme park. And, they’ve mentored younger students on product design, including the Girl Scouts.
To help fund some of their activities, students sell products out of their school workshop. The teacher proudly shares student projects on Twitter.
Wachtel’s own love of designing started when he was a child.
“I always loved to design and figure things out creatively,” he says. “I built a go-cart out of a lawn mower when I was 9, and my dad’s still mad at me. Since then, I’ve designed over 500 toys and products and worked with the best companies in the world.”
One of Wachtel’s products is the World-Famous Grill Wrangler, a three-in-one tool he launched through an innovation collaboration platform called Quirky. The combination spatula, tongs and fork has been demonstrated on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and the “Today” show.
The innovative instructor cites one important reason for his program’s success. “My teaching technique focuses on imagination. I tell students that everything around you is worthy of exploration. The desire and love for what you do — make it part of your life. The skills, experience and wisdom will come in time.”
Collaboration is key, Wachtel says, as his students teach one another as much as he leads class. “It’s great for students to learn from each other’s strengths,” he adds.
He teaches students to love learning. As for himself, “I love teaching students how to solve problems and think creatively, to discover something new. Their eyes light up when they discover talents and skills they never thought they had.”