MSEL Engineering Program with Allison Oropallo

Teaching Students How to Use a Drill

How to Efficiently Drill

Does using tools take following directions, or does it take skill? Today in class I showed students the difference between using a drill and using a drill efficiently. My approach to teaching is somewhat unconventional. I explain and demonstrate how to do something, however I never give the whole story right away. I want to see if the students can figure out other ways, or techniques, or avenues, to accomplish tasks. I want my students to learn to use their intuition, critical thinking, and problem solving skills. I get them started but then I let them figure it out.

Out of all the things I teach, I find that students are the slowest in the discovery of using a drill efficiently. If you ask a student to drill a hole, put a screw into the hole, and then remove the screw again, it will take them way too long. Like good direction-following-students, they carefully twist the chuck that releases the drill bit, then they carefully twist the chuck the other way to put in the screw-tip bit, all the while not realizing that they will never finish any large scale project at that speed. I rarely get a student who discovers the more efficient way of changing the bit in a drill, even when I allow less time to do things.

So today, I caved and showed the students the right way to use a drill efficiently. This was a very difficult task for most, however there were a few who are getting it rather quickly. Using a drill correctly is like reading out loud. You need to be one step ahead while interpreting what the story is (what needs to be done to build your creation). Using a drill is a way to interpret your creative thoughts just as reading out loud shows your ability to understand and articulate ideas and stories.

When you learned how to read out loud, you learned to properly project the words on the page. You didn’t just learn to read each individual word, you learned to flow each individual word into a sentence while understanding what you were reading. When you learn how to use a drill efficiently, you allow your creative thoughts to flow smoothly without interfering with your innovative thinking.

After students can drill a hole, put in a screw, and then remove the screw in under eight seconds they feel like they can create anything and nothing can get in their way. Remember the day you could read out loud without hesitation and were able to still understand the words you were speaking? Using tools efficiently is critical to the problem solving process. Some things just can’t be taught by telling, some things must be learned by doing. The more students know by doing, the more they know they are capable of. The impossible becomes possible.

Practice makes perfect ;)

Building Reclaimed Wood Table

Reclaimed Wood Table

Building Furniture with Students

Two of my MarinSEL students volunteered to help build a reclaimed wood table with me last weekend.

I decided to go with a red to brighten up the room. The table is built out of pallets that I found in a junkpile, and I was ready to put them to use. The only thing I had to buy was the conduit for the front table legs.

Allison Oropallo's DIY Picnic Table

The Folding Picnic Table

DIY table design with a twist

Last year someone donated a folding picnic table bench. Even though it was old and in pretty rough shape it still had a cool design. It wasn’t just a bench, it was a bench that could transform in to a table.

I put the bench aside for when I had time to give it some attention. Now is that time.

I decided to make two sides to my table design so that when it is folded together it will be a full picnic table.

In the pictures you can see how it came along.

Here is my first folding DIY picnic table.

Allison Oropallo working on her Pallet Wall Project

DIY Pallet Wall

Free Pallets for the New Pallet Wall

My uncle was in town for the weekend. So like any good niece, I asked him to help me on a pallet wall. I’ve wanted to do a pallet wall for a long time, so I did my research and found that many people said pallet walls were easy to do. However, I find that attitude to be misleading because for me, easy means done in a few hours. This project took far from a few hours.

First you have to find all the pallets. Once you have all the pallets then it’s time to get out a sawzall and get chopping. At first I actually tried to pull each pallet apart with a pry bar and hammer. If I didn’t figure out how to improve that process then this wall would not exist today. Pallets are no joke. They are put together to never come apart. My advice is to use a sawzall to cut right through the nails. You will get a system going and will improve in speed as you go. Just think, right when you are really getting good you will be done.

Next was sanding each board. My uncle and I inspected each side and marked the side of the board that would go against the wall with a big red X. After marking each board we began our noisy dusty task of sanding with 60-grit sandpaper. The goal is to get all the splinters smooth. Sanding also removes unwanted dirt and makes them look clean. Don’t sand too much! You don’t want to lose that awesome authentic look of each pallet board. These pallets have gone through so much travel and hardship to give you that cool worn-look that everybody loves, so don’t clean them up too much.

Once every board was sanded we decided to relax for the rest of the night.

My uncle was leaving the next morning, so I was now on my own to stain every single piece of wood. I bought a quart of dark and light stain. I also bought a gallon of clear satin polyurethane. Staining was tough to start because you need to try to come up with a plan to make the wall look uniform but at the same time unpredictable. After the first hour I knew which boards would get what stain. A lot of the oak pieces got the clear poly because it made those boards look rich and old. After each board was done they were laid out in the back yard for drying.

I used my finish nailer to put the pallet boards up. Pallet boards are not uniform in thickness or board width, so it can be a bit of a puzzle putting them up. I kept like-sizes together and used the table saw to trimm if I had to. I moved the outlet for the TV to a higher spot on the wall so I don’t have to look at cords. When you cut boards to fit around all of the outlets I suggest using a jigsaw. I had just enough boards to get the job done. Once the wall was complete, I decided to take some of the extra pallet wood to make a shelf for the DVD player and AppleTV to sit on.

I love how the pallet wall came out.

Sherlock Dog Bed

Homemade Reclaimed Dog Bed

What’s better than an upcycled dog bed?

My dog needs a dog bed. I know because he told me so… Every morning. He’s telling me that he wants a dog bed.

About a year ago I build my basset hound a window seat so he could look out the house window. But in the stairs for the window seat were too small and awkward for his short long awkward basset hound body. Plus, the last step to the window seat was about a six-inch drop, and that classifies as extreme sports for a basset hound.

So it was time to build Sherlock a new dog bed. One that will be easier on his short body.

Sherlock’s legs are only 7-inches long. That isn’t very long for a dog. A DVD case is longer than that. My hand is 6-inches long. Sherlock doesn’t just have short legs, he has a normal 65lbs dog body with short legs. Stairs are not that easy for him. Sherlock’s ears are longer than his legs. So his new stairs are made to be perfect for his leg height. I even put safety rails on the sides of the steps for his elder moments when he comes close to stepping off.

Sherlock teaches me to never give up and makes relaxing look so easy. He is great to watch a movie with and is always making me laugh. I couldn’t imagine being a dog that couldn’t see out a window. Sherlock has earned this great dog bed as a place to look out into the world. He can watch the street, listen to the birds, and soak up the sunshine.

Sherlock is officially in retirement mode. Living out his days sleeping, chewing on his favorite toy “Sammy”, begging for food, going for our walk in the woods, moaning (purring?!), and watching the world out of his kick-ass window seat.

Sherlock Dog Bed

Marin County California students build upcycled shipping container

Upcycled Shipping Container

Students in Marin build Upcycled Shipping Container

Ever since I took my first environmental science class in high school with my awesome teacher, Mr. Daily, I’ve tried to reduce my carbon footprint. I recycle everything I can and upcycle to create my DIY projects. It’s more rewarding to build DIY projects out of something old than with new material- both for the environment and for the soul. So this year, after my colleagues and I decided to make an upcycled home from an old shipping container in the ROP course I help out with, I was pumped!

We bought an old container that was going to be thrown away from the Port of Oakland with a grant we got from the Redwood Foundation at Redwood High School. Over the course of 18 weeks, we’ll be teaching the class how to convert the container to an office studio. We’ve decided to do a foldout deck on the end of the container, and it will also have sliding glass doors in the middle. The container will be insulated, have fully functional plumbing and electrical, and of course a fresh look. When the project is complete it will be auctioned off to the community for $20,000.

Check out some examples below of some innovative upcycling. Upcycled shipping containers – better building solutions to a changing world.

I’m glad that it is becoming more and more popular to build houses from upcycled materials. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for a builder’s imagination. It’s even good for the pocketbook.

Shipping Container Guest House with Living Roof

Shipping Container Guest House with Living Roof | Photo Credit: o.homedsgn.com

The Port-a-Bach prototype, BONNIFAIT + GIESEN

The Port-a-Bach prototype, BONNIFAIT + GIESEN | Photo Credit: http://www.atelierworkshop.com

The Port-a-Bach prototype, BONNIFAIT + GIESEN

The Port-a-Bach prototype, BONNIFAIT + GIESEN | Photo Credit: http://www.atelierworkshop.com

Shipping Container Home

Shipping Container Home | Photo Credit: http://www.offgridworld.com

Allison Oropallo making her Adirondack Chainsaw Bear

Chainsaw Wood-Carved Bear

Wooden Bear – Adirondack Style

One summer in upstate New York, I got the opportunity to work with one of my mentors, Mr. Sova. At a job in the Adirondacks I asked Mr. Sova if I could use the chainsaw to carve a wooden bear out of a scrap piece of timber laying around. A half hour later this is what I was left with.

The cool thing about the chainsaw was that it didn’t have the generic bar on it like the one you might have in your garage. Mr. Sova’s saw had a special carving bar. The tip of it was sharper and more precise than a generic one. It was fun to carve a wooden bear. I recommend adding it to your bucket list. The wooden Adirondack bear holds a special place in my heart. I keep it in my classroom to remind me of where I am from and the amazing summer with the crew.

Clough Construction Redwood Fence Project

Clough Construction

Organic Garden Fence Donation

This past week my MarinSEL engineering technology class tackled the garden fence issue on campus. There were three major issues with the fence on campus including safety, animal invasion, and looks.

Clough Construction volunteered to donate all of the materials for the fence project. They were our heroes and helped as mentors for the students. Terra Linda High School will be forever grateful to have their organic garden fence.


The process for this fence was as follows:

  1. First the holes were dug. Originally the students were going to do this by hand using post hole diggers, however we soon discovered that the ground was so hard it would have taken us weeks. So the students dug three holes total as a group. With much sweat, dirt, and perseverance they soon discovered that manual labor was no joke. The remainder of the holes were dug by the school’s maintenance crew using an auger. This was much appreciated.
  2. Once the holes were dug, Clough Construction sent two amazing carpenters to assist us in setting the posts. The students had a blast doing this step. They got in groups of two and mixed concrete using a tarp. They discovered that a bag of concrete weighs 80 lbs. too! They then filled the holes making sure all of the posts were plumb in both directions. This step is extremely important. A few mixed the concrete in a wheelbarrow as well… just adding to their knowledge of ways to accomplish the same task. After all the posts were set we let them dry overnight.
  3. Next we began the framing process for the fence. This fence was a simple design. It is also called a deer fence which is 6 feet high and 2 feet in the ground. The students learned how drilling pilot holes is always helpful in drilling straight and making sure the drill is not in reverse is also very helpful ;). They started getting the hang of it and it soon started moving along more quickly.
  4. After the framing was all done we then attached the wire mesh around the perimeter of the fence. This was a lot of hammering. To hold the fence everyone had to work together to ensure the mesh was stretched tight as they applied the galvanized staples. This took a lot of communication and patience at times. Having 28 students definitely makes this go fast!
  5. While the mesh was being hung a few students started pre-cutting all of the parts for the arbor which would go over the gate. They did an amazing job working as a team and being as efficient and accurate as possible. The arbor came out great!

I am very happy with how this project played out. I like to think that every student absolutely loved every aspect of the fence project. If they didn’t love it, they at least understand what it takes to build something large scale. One student came up to me on the last day and said, “Now I have a whole new appreciation for what my dad does!” That is a lesson in itself. Nothing gets built or improved by snapping your figures. It takes hard work, a no-quit-attitude, teamwork and cooperation, and a willingness to be flexible and helpful. Our next task is designing the gate. The students are going to build the gate and create a parts list with orthographic drawings using Autodesk Inventor software.


A special thanks goes out to Clough Construction for their support in this project. Companies like Clough Construction is what makes communities. I hope the students see from this experience the impact they can have on their community by supporting education and projects they believe in. When they have businesses, jobs, skills that they can use to benefit those around them I hope they will remember what Clough Construction did for them in giving them such a unique experience. Pay/build it forward.

Don’t forget to check out the class’s website at www.MarinSELengineering.com

MarinIJ Comes to Engineering Class

Wind Turbine Project

MarinSEL in the Marin Independent Journal

The MarinIJ came to see the 3D-printed wind turbine that my high school engineering class designed on Autodesk Inventor. Energy Recovery CEO and engineers, along with Terra Linda High School principal Lars Christensen were in attendance to observe the energy generated by the turbine.

Students worked with Energy Recovery of the East Bay through the fall semester coming up with wind turbine designs. Engineers came throughout the semester and met one-on-one with students. The final wind turbine generated the most energy measured by a voltage meter.

In case you missed it, check out my MSEL Engineering class in the Marin Independent Journal, Sustainability focus of Terra Linda High School program.