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New construction course at Eagan High School gives students the tools of the trades

Underneath the frame of a tiny house, Eagan High School teacher Ryan Hauenstein teaches one his students the proper way to install pipes for a plumbing unit. He then supervises as another student carefully slices a wooden ceiling plank, installing it moments later. It is this hands-on learning technique in Hauenstein’s Construction and Building Trades course that is molding the next generation of tradespeople.

Funded by a Construction Careers Foundation grant, the elective was added last fall. Twelve students signed up for the inaugural class and have been navigating the construction field throughout the year during a two-block period at the end of the day. Just seven months, Hauenstein said the course is already proving to be a valuable investment.

In October, students took on their first project – a tool shed, which for the novice builders admittedly was a challenge. Everything from the design to framing, siding, painting and installing rafters were tasks the students learned how to complete.

“It was more like a test project for us,” said senior Romeo Owen. “There were a few of us that had some experience, but the rest of us were still trying to learn basic terminology.”

Inexpensive materials allowed students to build – and rebuild – a functioning structure, as well as build on their knowledge of construction. When Hauenstein went looking for a second project, he was offered an opportunity to construct a tiny house.

“I think part of it was the increased responsibility and pressure of getting this right, because this was someone’s home,” said senior Jake Koenen. “We all went in more careful knowing that someone was going to live in this.”

Just before fall break, the students got to work erecting the tiny house frame on a two-wheel trailer bed. Rain or shine, even on sub-zero winter days, the students hammered away at the project. Hauenstein said braving the elements is a real-life factor in the construction business and learning how to persevere through unfavorable conditions was an important lesson for students.

Week after week the frame began to take the shape of a house, which when completed will be roughly 250 square feet. As the tiny home grew, so did the skillsets of each student, as well as their interest in the field. For Koenen, the class brought everything full circle for him.

“From barely being able to read a tape measure to now people can just shout something up to me while I’m working and I understand them, that’s a cool feeling,” he said.

“The biggest thing is that at the start of this class, if you asked the majority of students if they felt comfortable building a wall or running pipe or wire, or if they even know how it worked, I think everyone would have said no,” Owen added. “Now, we all have that knowledge.”

In May, the students are expected to hand over the tiny house to its owner, who supplied the materials and will put on the finishing touches.

Replenishing an industry

The course isn’t just about teaching students new skills, it’s also about setting them up for potential careers.

“We have heard that 50 percent of the workforce in Minnesota will retire in the next five years,” Hauenstein said. “And statistics say that Baby Boomers hold 5 million construction jobs. When they move out of that sector, there will be a huge gap.”

Together with fellow tech ed teacher Wayne Krantz, the two advocated for the new class. Students had the opportunity to network with professionals in the field and took several field trips to learn directly from them. They met with tradespeople at Thorsen Homes, Bonfe, McGough Builders, Langer Construction, Habitat for Humanity and trade unions, an interaction Krantz said drove home the idea of what it’s like to work in construction.

“This class really showed me that I could have a viable future in construction,” Koenen said. “And the more I dig deeper, the more I like this as an option for me.”

This summer, Koenen, who wants to go into carpentry, is planning to work on small projects alongside his neighbors, one of whom is a stonemason and the other is a plumber. Several of his classmates are also exploring careers as skilled laborers. Emma Zellmer, who had only helped her dad with minor projects around the house, is now switching her education track from pre-law to a double major in construction management and business.

“For decades we’ve been pushing the traditional college track, but for some kids that isn’t the best fit,” Hauenstein said. “Here in the trades environment, they thrive. And they can walk away and not just see a grade, but something they build with their own hands.”