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Trading Pencils for Hammers: These Kids Are Learning Math and Getting Jobs Right Out of High School

May 2, 2019
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Trading Pencils for Hammers: These Kids Are Learning Math and Getting Jobs Right Out of High School
Students get out of the classroom and into the field in Geometry in Construction. Here a class of students shows off their tiny home. Photo courtesy of Scott Burke
Classes like geometry and algebra have high failure rates. A new hands-on curriculum teaches students math while they build homes for people who need them.

If the Geometry in Construction curriculum had existed years ago, Jeff Schaefer would never have quit teaching.

Now, he’s back in the classroom — sort of. Every other day, Schaefer trades a textbook for a hammer and dry-erase markers for nails.

“I’m a big do-it-yourselfer, so this was right up my alley,” said Schaefer, a math teacher at Hendrickson High School in Pflugerville, Texas.

Hendrickson High School is one of more than 500 schools in the United States that currently offers a curriculum called Geometry in Construction, designed by the company Contextual Learning Concepts.

Students learn math by building a tiny home with tools and materials. The first year the school funds the project, and after that, the program is self-sustained by selling the homes.

In a typical classroom, students might be given a page of shapes and be asked to calculate the area of each shape. But in Geometry in Construction, math is applied to a real project in a real-life setting. For example, students might be given a blueprint with compound shapes, where they have to calculate the total square footage of carpet. Classes incorporate a variety of fields — electrical, carpeting, design, plumbing, siding, roofing. The construction of the house drives the order in which they learn each field.

“Kids get really hungry for being able to answer that age-old question in math of ‘When am I ever going to need to know how to use this?’” Burke said. Geometry in Construction provides an answer.

Geometry in Construction was first offered in 2006 by Scott Burke, an industrial technology teacher, and Tom Moore, a math teacher, at Loveland High School in Loveland, Colorado. A cohort of 80 students built a 640-square-foot home, which now sits in the mountains outside of Woodland Park, Colorado.

Since then, the curriculum has gained momentum. Currently, there isn’t a comprehensive study that shows whether the students have higher test scores compared to their peers in a regular class. But a small internal study within a few Colorado high schools showed these students had higher than average math scores.

Schaefer said he’s seeing similar results at Hendrickson High School.

In the typical classroom setting, he sees about 50 percent homework completion. “It’s like pulling teeth,” he said. But the way Geometry in Construction is taught, homework isn’t really optional. If students don’t turn in homework, they don’t get to work on the house. Homework completion, he estimates, has risen to 85 percent.

But success can be measured in more ways than just completion of homework or higher test scores. According to Schaefer, Geometry in Construction is also reaching students who sometimes have a hard time learning in a classroom environment.

“Some of them who really struggle at the pen and paper side of it, once we get to the real world, they’re incredible,” he said.

Geometry in Construction is also exposing students to trade skills — a sector with a dearth of workers in the U.S.

Seventy percent of construction companies are struggling to find qualified workers. And skilled trades, which includes welders, carpenters, electricians, mechanics and plumbers, have been the hardest to fill since 2010. And the jobs pay well. There are over 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 a year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Burke said the gap in trade jobs is a result of a push for college. It’s been ingrained in students to go to college after finishing high school.

Burke’s biggest challenge is showing parents that their students can be successful with or without a college degree.

“For some reason, we’ve almost demonized doing any kind of work with your hands,” said Burke. “As a teacher, one of the things we talk a lot about in training is that you can’t just be an educator of kids in this. You really have to be an educator of an entire community around what are the realities of the construction industry.”

Since launching the program at Loveland, 18 of Burke’s students went on to pursue careers in construction. Former students are now electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians, framers and carpenters.

Geometry in Construction is meant to be self-sustaining, so the houses are sold to fund the next year’s program. But other schools have found partnerships with organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, to help fund and donate houses.

For example, at Glenbrook South High School, students built a home for LaTonya Stamps through Habitat for Humanity. At Hersey High School, students built homes for veterans struggling with homelessness.

Each teacher goes through a four-day training, which costs $1,695 per person. There, the teachers gain access to the math and construction curriculum, lesson plans and homework assignments. They also connect with a network of people teaching the same class. Burke says the price of this training is competitive to the cost of other curriculums where textbooks and licensing can skyrocket costs.

Since launching Geometry in Construction, Contextual Learning Concepts has also formed Amped on Algebra.

At Loveland, algebra had a 65 percent first-time fail rate.

In Amped on Algebra, instead of building a house, students build a business by selling T-shirts.

Algebra is one of the most commonly failed classes in high schools across the country. Some school districts experience a 74 percent fail rate.

“The thing is that Algebra 1, geometry, and even a little bit of Algebra 2 really are gatekeeper kinds of classes going into many different careers and into higher education,” Burke said.

And so Burke and Moore modeled their class similar to Geometry in Construction. And it worked, said Burke.

“The fact that these ninth grade kids understand a business model… is huge.”

Burke sees the hands-on model finding a home in every class. There’s potential for this to extend outside of math and into science, arts and English, he said.

“You see a different level of work ethic when you have a kid who is truly loving what they’re doing,” Schaefer said.

More: Fixing America’s Schools

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