Team STEM: How Onshape Makes Engineering Accessible & Fun

Written by: Jon Hirschtick

Read Time: 3 min

With three decades of teaching STEM under his belt, New York-based instructor Chris Hurd knows first-hand the challenges of getting kids to learn complex CAD software. Add to that equation stretched school budgets for STEM learning (not all school districts can invest in the hardware needed to run CAD) and limited computing resources (project work and collaboration have historically been limited to computer labs), and you’ve got anything but a level playing field for STEM education.

However, the education space has been trending toward a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, with many colleges and universities already offering STEM learning online prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a SaaS model, students can work together on projects in the cloud, across any device (iPads, tablets, Androids, etc.), allowing for all sorts of interactions between educators and students and peer groups of students.

Designed to complement the way engineering teams – and students – really work, Onshape is the only full-SaaS product design platform using the latest cloud, web, and mobile technologies. Onshape's Education Standard plan is free for students and educators and requires no desktop downloads or lengthy installation.

“Onshape lowers the barrier of technology entry for families,” says Hurd. “With Onshape, students can use a school-issued Chromebook or any other device at home – as long as they have an Internet connection, they are good to go.”

It’s stories like these that showcase the power of the cloud and the ways SaaS is giving more students access to STEM education than ever before. When I hear people say that their kids are using Onshape in school – and it’s getting them excited about technology – that’s really cool for me to hear!

Let’s take a closer look at how Onshape is making STEM accessible and fun, turning today’s students into the engineers of tomorrow:

Educational Benefit & Accessibility

Onshape provides three major areas of benefit to educational institutions and students: remote learning capabilities, platform compatibility, and ease of use.

  • Remote learning capabilities: Onshape’s virtual collaboration features allow students (and educators) to work on the same design at the same time across any device – with all changes synchronized. Don’t just take my word for it: Watch this cool video on how RIT engineering student Olivia Meyers is benefitting from Onshape’s collaboration capabilities.
  • Platform compatibility: Onshape is the only CAD solution that runs on any device – from school-supplied Chromebooks or iPads to any hardware at home (PC, tablet, Android, MacBook) – Onshape fits with the hardware realities of the current educational environment where students are at home.
  • Ease of use: With single sign-on compatibility, Onshape’s Education Enterprise plan is easier for educators to administer, and students can work in a very familiar way in a web browser.

It’s not only about getting students to learn and have access to CAD. When the pandemic hit, educators suddenly found themselves pivoting to remote instruction seemingly overnight. For the majority of educators, that meant ushering in an entirely new way of teaching.

Oregon-based educator Kathryn Harmon, a teacher and a library specialist, suspended most of her teaching responsibilities at the start of the pandemic, opting instead to train teachers in new technology and troubleshoot issues in the short window her district had to transition to distance learning.

Because her students all use school-issued Chromebooks, Harmon switched her classes to full-cloud Onshape – her curriculum had previously been using installed 3D design software that required expensive desktop hardware and yearly software upgrades.

“For so many years we were told you have to buy this enormously expensive software program that won’t work well on your old hardware,” says Harmon. “Onshape proved you can have this big, amazing worldscape, and it can still work on tiny little devices.”

Make Learning Fun

With more students learning the basics of STEM in the collaborative approach that Onshape enables, we’re making learning fun! The key is bringing STEM to more students, at an earlier age, by making it accessible to everyone – regardless of where kids are learning (in school or remotely) or the devices they have access to.

A big part of getting kids engaged in STEM learning is “meeting them where they are,” so to speak. Kids today are digital natives – they’re growing up with technology in a way other generations did not. I grew up taking drafting classes – with a paper and pencil! – while kids today are already learning programming.

My point is that there’s a familiarity with technology that makes kids like sponges for STEM education. It’s always a question of how much fun there is versus drudgery – kids don’t want to wade through IT issues or install anything, they just want to pick up their device and go. Onshape enables that: Kids can get excited about bringing a design to life using the devices they’re already on.

Take, for example, the “Robots to the Rescue” design competition. Using Onshape, students aged 11-18 competed virtually to design a robot that could help solve a world problem, such as providing food and medical supplies to areas in need. In addition to collaborating, the students got to engage their interest in STEM, in fun and impactful ways.

The idea is to make STEM learning fun enough that it doesn’t even feel like learning. Instead of doing math worksheets, students are designing a 3D model together, bringing their ideas to life on the same CAD software the pros use. In some cases, the technologies students are using are even ahead of the industry standard – it’s amazing to see!

The implications are huge for the product development industry. The earlier we can get kids engaged in STEM learning, the better equipped they will be to bring to the workforce the technology and modern collaboration techniques they’ve grown up using. Ultimately, we’re training a better generation of STEM professionals.

STEM as a Team Sport

Arguably the biggest part of making STEM learning fun is making it collaborative. Back to the idea of “meeting kids where they are,” most video games are collaborative – even Netflix has “Netflix Party,” which lets kids watch their favorite shows with their friends online. It’s the same concept that’s used in the professional world (video conferencing and online collaboration tools like Google Docs) and it’s a big part of the appeal of using SaaS in STEM education.

Within Onshape, a team of students can work on the same design, at the same time – meaning, as with a shared Google Doc, collaboration happens in real time. Students can watch each other (or a teacher) add to the design, contribute to the design themselves, or break into subgroups to work on different pieces of the model. It all happens in the same way kids are already interacting with their peers.

Final Thoughts

The most powerful stories I hear about Onshape in STEM education are stories where educators are engaging students in ways they never thought possible – and it’s getting more and more kids excited about technology! We recently hit a milestone of registering one million Onshape education users, meaning there are that many more students and educators who have access to CAD software in STEM.

That’s not just a number to us. When there’s this kind of momentum, it means the education community gets more out of each other: more innovation, more collaboration, more feedback on all of the ways we can better our kids’ education. Because that’s really what we’re talking about: empowering the workforce of tomorrow by giving them access to all of the tools they need to succeed today.

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Onshape for education brings CAD out of the computer lab and into the modern era.
Tags: CAD Corporate News SaaS

About the Author

Jon Hirschtick

Jon Hirschtick is Chief Evangelist, Velocity Group, of PTC and spends much of his time helping others understand and realize the power of cloud-native SaaS tools for product development. Jon leads the team researching, developing, and managing the recently acquired SaaS product development platform, Onshape. Outside of PTC, he advises emerging technology companies including Magic Leap and MarkForged.

Considered one of the computer-aided design (CAD) industry’s top thought leaders, Jon joined PTC with approximately 35 years of experience in CAD, having served as Founder and CEO of SOLIDWORKS, a Dassault Systems company; Director of Engineering at Computervision; and Manager of MIT’s CADLab.

Jon received both his B.Sc. and M.A. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. During his time at the Institute, Jon was a member of the MIT Blackjack team.