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High School Course Puts Construction Industry on Students’ Radar

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One way industry stakeholders are trying to address the construction labor challenge is to build a pipeline of engaged workers by introducing young people to the industry in their high schools. The Geometry in Construction at Loveland High School serves the dual purpose of exposing young people to a potential career and helping them do better in school no matter their aspirations.

Geometry in Construction is the mutual effort of a math teacher and shop teacher. The class was created to help students perform better—and for a little job security, according to Scott Burke, technical education teacher at the school and one of the developers of the curriculum.

Elective courses aren’t always a priority for budget-strapped schools, and when those teachers retire, they often aren’t replaced, Burke said.

He and his partner got the idea for the course from data out of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, which found that “if you can contextualize curriculum and show kids real applications for core academics, they not only retain it better, but they also score higher on all forms of standardized testing,” he said.

In 2006, 80 students signed up for the first Geometry in Construction class, Burke said. Students built an 840-square foot one-bedroom cabin that now sits outside Woodland Park. Twelve years later, the course typically has a waitlist, and the program has been replicated in over 425 schools around the country.

Implications for the industry

The only prerequisite for GiC is to have successfully passed Algebra 1, so students tend to be ninth or 10th graders, Burke said. However, the class does attract older students, as well as those who may not have technically met the prerequisite.

“There’s this little thing called social promotion, so every year we get students who really didn’t pass Algebra 1, but they show up in our class anyway. That’s just one of the games that is played in education,” he said.

Some students decide to pursue construction as a career, Burke said. “We have purposefully created it so that it covers all aspects of the industry. We do everything from the trades to construction management to civil engineering to interior design.”

RELATED: From Text Books to Tool Belts

Burke will be taking the GiC program to Jefferson County schools next year when he begins teaching at Green Mountain High School.

“Sixty percent of my job will be to continue the Geometry in Construction program,” he said, “but 40% of my job is at the district level to try to get Jefferson County in line so that all the schools” offer the program.

He expects to have the program at six of Jefferson County’s 17 high schools in the next two years. He says Cherry Creek School District and Denver Public Schools are coming on board, and he’s getting interest from schools in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and Douglas County School District. He’s also working with the Metro Denver chapter of Habitat for Humanity on accessory dwelling units.

GiC is an “entry point” for students to go on to community college, trade schools or the Colorado Homebuilding Academy, Burke said. “Michael Smith’s [director of the Academy] program is really designed for 11th- and 12th-grade students, and it’s to get them some very tangible hard skills, to be entry level in the profession.”

His program reaches 14- and 15-year-olds and “giving them a really good experience that then they could pass on into the community college system or into Michael Smith’s program

His students already complete the course with their 10-hour OSHA training, Burke said. He would like to expand the program to include a certification that demonstrates to potential employers that graduates have “the soft skills that are going to make them stay in a job and that they have the aptitude to be able to handle the rigorous stresses of hard-skill training.”

Not just a local solution

The GiC course is taught in schools all around the Front Range and the country, but it doesn’t look the same in each school.

“Not all of them build houses,” Burke said of classes taught in other schools. The goal in sharing the course with other schools is to train teachers to create three- to five-year plans that are tailored to their own skills, students and communities.

“For example, in New York City, they don’t need housing, especially this type of housing, so they do things a little bit differently,” he said. On the other end of the spectrum, students in rural Riverton, Wyoming, build houses, but spend two years on the project instead of one to suit their small class size.

“We help teachers really tailor the program” to suit their needs, Burke said.

Beyond the practical implications for an industry pressed for labor, the program has broader potential to get young people more engaged with their school and their community. The class has a philanthropic aspect that Burke says drives a lot of student interest.

“When they get to interact with a family and build alongside the family, that really changes the situation for teenagers,” he said. “I think kids do really want to give back in meaningful ways, but sometimes they don’t have the platform to do that.”

The City of Loveland has been trying to address homelessness and approached Burke to build tiny homes for a transitional housing village. This year’s class is building a mobile unit that will effectively be a model home that can be displayed at community events like the Corn Roast Festival, the NewWestFest and the Fire and Ice Festival. Students will be on hand to educate the community about the build.

“About a year ago, we went in front of the City Council,” Burke explained, which had identified “homelessness in Loveland as a really big problem, but that’s really along the entire Front Range.”

Colorado’s rapid growth has pushed a lot of people out their homes, he said. “There’s a huge misconception out there that … people are moving here and then becoming homeless. That’s not reality. These people have been here all along and they’re being pushed out of housing that they used to be able to afford.”

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