Teaching Construction in the Field

Valuable skills and knowledge are acquired by building framed structures in the school parking lot.

By Bruce Anderson

construction equipment

Hundreds of thousands of construction workers have left the trades during the economic slowdown. Many more will be retiring over the next few years. When building picks up again, or even if it doesn’t, there will be a demand for new entry-level people in the trades. In schools, we have an opportunity to train our students for good jobs that will pay a living wage and that can’t be off-shored. This is a description of a program that taught basic construction skills and knowledge of key concepts by building actual structures in the field.

Building Framed Structures Using Standard Construction Techniques

In 2006, I had the opportunity to develop a construction program at a high school located at a local camp for juvenile offenders. We had substantial support from the local contractors association, which provided us with materials and tools.

Our training program involved the construction of three separate “practice” buildings—built so that they could be disassembled at the end of each class and the materials used again. There were three classes involved in the building project, and each class built their own structure. Students wore nail bags in the field, complete with framing hammers, speed squares, pencils, and measuring tapes. They used Skil Saws, battery-powered screw guns, levels, a transit, and various other hand tools.

The structures were built in stages, in the same order that would be used in constructing a new building, with the exception of a foundation (the structures were built on a blacktop parking lot). The training followed this sequence:

  • Safety: Every individual underwent a safety training, learning about the potential hazards of hand and power tools, and what to watch out for during the process of construction. The boys had a short safety discussion at the beginning of each class.
  • Acquiring Basic Skills: The boys learned to drive nails the way professionals do (no tap tap tap, but rather a full swing with a bent arm) and the most effective way to carry materials. They learned how to cut boards with a Skil Saw (using scrap stock), and how to use a transit. Measuring skills were an important part of the training.
  • Building a Framed Floor: The boys built a frame for each building from 2” X 8” lumber, and covered it with sections of 4’ X 8’ X ½” plywood. The framing members were nailed with 16d nails, while the plywood surface was attached with screws, to make disassembly easier. They used blocks and a transit to level the completed floor so it would be ready to support the framing.
  • Framing the Walls: Students framed four walls for each structure. Three were solid walls, while one contained a framed opening for a door and a window. Framing was done as it is in a real framing project, with built-up corners and standard framing for the door and window.
  • Standing the Walls: The boys erected the finished walls and, using a 6’ level, made the corners vertical and braced them in place. Finally, they sheeted the walls with more ½ inch plywood, again using screws for easier disassembly.
  • Building a Roof: The boys stood, blocked and braced eight prefabricated trusses, and sheeted the truss structure with ½ inch plywood. For safety reasons, we disassembled the walls first and built the truss roof on the floor of the structure.
  • Disassembling the Structures: The first time the students built the three structures, they cut all the pieces to length. The buildings were disassembled at the end of that first training, and sorted and stored according to length. The materials were then used over and over during each iteration of the training. It turned out to be possible to reuse the same lumber for an entire year, and some of the studs and other framing material we began with were still in use four years later.

Benefits of Learning in the Field

Individuals who completed the building projects had a variety of experiences not usually available in the standard school curriculum, but they also used the skills they learned in other classes. They had opportunities to use math skills in laying out and framing the buildings, and they learned to read and interpret plans. Some basic concepts of geometry were essential in the building process.

Education in high school is usually abstract, learning from books, and acquiring knowledge and skills that can be tested; whereas, education and training in the field encourages different modes of learning. In this construction program, everything the participants learned was directly related to creating something in the real world. They were motivated to learn and succeed in a very concrete way. While this was first modeled in a facility for boys, students in any school can benefit substantially from this kind of program, and it’s a very doable instructional strategy.

Additional Construction Resources:

What Is the Slope of the Stairs in Front of the School?

Because of time and resource constraints, we didn’t build stairs for our structures, but stairs are an interesting project and one that is useful for teaching various important mathematical concepts. Next time we’ll have stairs!

Hand Tools and Power Tools Used in Carpentry

This is a useful lesson plan for classes who are about to do any kind ofconstruction project. It explores the use of the basic tools that construction workers use in their trade.

The Construction Site—Safety in Action

When pupils are doing construction, safety is the most important concern in the program. They need to be educated about safety practices and drilled in paying attention to safety issues. This resource leads scholars through a process of identifying safety hazards.