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Monday, 09 April 2012 16:05

Teaching tools of the trade: State Farm, Habitat program gives students hands-on experience in green building

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WEST MICHIGAN — A new program not only helps members of the community to find affordable housing, but it also serves as a vehicle to teach other people the skills they need for a successful career in the construction industry.

In March, State Farm Insurance contributed $20,000 to link Grand Rapids Community College’s Tassel M-TEC program, Ferris State University’s Michigan Energy Center and Grand Rapids Public School’s Academy of Design and Construction in a project designed to help Habitat For Humanity of Kent County construct or renovate housing for those in need on Grand Rapids’ southeast side.

Chris Hall, director of strategic initiatives for Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, said the education partnership has become a real cornerstone of what the organization has been able to do over the last few years. He said the award-winning program from the Michigan Association of Education Training is helping Habitat become smarter about how it builds homes.

The input from the local colleges and the advice from firms such as Rockford Construction Company Inc. and Triangle Associates Inc. also help, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is build a simple, decent home for a family in need,” Hall said. “I’d put our homes up against any other built by a private for-profit builder.”

Getting students involved from the Academy of Design and Construction, one of GRPS’s new innovation centers, helps the students put some “skin in the game” and gives them hands-on learning in the processes of homebuilding.

“It’s more than just a house being built — it’s a learning lab,” Hall said. “Students are getting a hand in the growth part of the construction market.”

Through the four-month home building projects, students from the academy learn everything from construction basics to site management. College students involved in the project typically work on more advanced technology and on designs.

On average, the homes are between 900 and 1,500 square feet, depending on the family for which the home is being built. One of the current houses under construction requires accommodations for people with disabilities. Students may also work alongside the people they are building the houses for, since part of the Habitat program requires the family to put in some “sweat equity” — around 300 to 500 hours of work on site or in one of Habitat’s ReStores.

So far, Hall said he has seen some students go on to join other programs, like Aquinas College’s sustainable business program or Ferris State’s construction program.

“A key part of this is connecting students to careers in the field or institutions of higher learning,” he said. “When you look to the future of construction, we need to help develop the next generation of folks who will learn these trades. We’re seeing a handful make that choice.”

John Helmholdt, director of communications and external affairs for the Grand Rapids Public Schools, said the Academy of Design and Construction has the largest number of community partners of all the innovation centers, which launched together in 2007. He said companies including Steelecase, Progressive AE and Cascade Engineering, whose executives sit on the school’s advisory board, help keep the center true to its plan.

Craig Datema, CEO of Triangle Associates, is working with teachers to help design a hybrid curriculum, Helmholdt said.

“All students take a freshman-level orientation,” Datema said. “The sophomore level gives them their first studio classes, and at the junior level, they pick a pathway in either design or construction.”

The classes range from urban planning to interior or exterior design, as well as electrical and mechanical engineering. The electives are scheduled with many field trips and hands-on learning opportunities, Datema said.

Learning how students today process information and keeping the work relevant to how they want to learn is the biggest challenge, he said. Now that the major curriculum components are in place, the committee meets every six to eight weeks to make sure the program is on track and to manage fundraising for needs like proper work clothes for the winter months.

Another piece of the business leaders’ role is mentoring. Tom McGovern, president of Rockford Construction, who also serves on the advisory board, works to provide 20 to 25 mentors for students.

“Once a month, we have mentors from our company meet with the students,” he said. “It provides not only experience for the students, but it gives the professionals in the industry the chance to get in front of students to create some role modeling and give them some vision.”

With such direct relationships to the construction community, Helmholdt said the school is seeing students in the innovation center programs, particularly the Academy of Design and Construction, outperforming students in traditional classes.

“Next year will be the first graduating class of the academy,” he said. “We’re seeing higher retention rates and we expect the graduation rate to be on par higher than Union High School.”

Helmholdt said Habitat and its longstanding relationship with the school has been the anchor for the burgeoning innovation center and its 100-some students.

All the homes will be completed this spring and will meet at least LEED silver standards, though Hall said past projects have consistently secured LEED gold rankings.

Read 2500 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 August 2012 10:04

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