Students Build Tiny Houses to Bring Geometry Lessons to Life

By Sarah Schwartz — April 30, 2019 4 min read
Brian Hancock, left, helps sophomore De’Andre Saunders, 16, cut plywood. Before attending the Geometry in Construction training, Hancock said, he hadn’t had much hands-on construction experience. “I was kind of learning as fast as the students,” he said.
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At Battle High School in Columbia, Mo., students in geometry class have swapped their compasses and protractors for hammers and hard hats. And they’re doing it for a good cause.

The school is one of a handful across the country where students are building tiny houses in math or career-and-technical-education courses. The experience, educators say, not only teaches practical trade skills but also math, economics, and problem-solving.

Battle’s class follows the Geometry in Construction curriculum, an applied-math course that’s used in about 500 U.S. schools. While some classes, like the one at Battle, build houses, the list of projects students take on is long and varied and includes chicken coops, barns, and backyard furniture, said Scott Burke, a GiC teacher in Lakewood, Colo., and one of the curriculum’s co-designers.

The construction process drives the order in which students learn, said Brian Hancock, a geometry teacher who co-teaches the GiC course with woodworking and construction teacher Carl Dement. To progress on the house, students “have to troubleshoot and figure it out and use the math tools that we’ve given to them,” said Hancock. “They’re much more comfortable seeing problems that seem intimidating to other students.”

The 18 students in the class at Battle will donate the dwelling to Central Missouri Community Action, an organization that works on poverty issues in the region, to serve as affordable housing for a family in need. The nonprofit also provided the building materials.

Although some students in the class want to become math teachers or engineers, not all plan to pursue careers in STEM or the building trades, said Hancock. He thinks the class is stronger for this diversity.

“I want it to be a class where kids can go experience something they’ve never done before [and] get outside of their comfort zone,” he said.

Sixteen-year-old sophomores, from left, Rodney Arnold, Micaiah Rice, and Caleb Caraker lift plywood on to the roof.
—Whitney Curtis for Education Week

Caleb Caraker attaches plywood sheathing to the roof. “The biggest thing about this class is the altruistic piece behind it,” said Hancock. “We’re building this house to give to somebody who may not have a house. We’re reminding those kids daily that we’re going to go out there in the cold, we’re going to work, so that this family doesn’t have to be out in the cold much longer.”
—Whitney Curtis for Education Week

Carl Dement, woodworking and construction teacher, speaks to students at the beginning of class on March 22 at Battle High School in Columbia, Mo. Students in this Geometry in Construction class, co-taught by Dement and geometry teacher Brian Hancock, are building a tiny house for a low-income family in the community.
—Whitney Curtis for Education Week

More Challenging Than a Traditional Class?

Career-and-technical-education teacher Scott Burke and former math teacher Tom Moore created the original Geometry in Construction curriculum in 2005, at Loveland High School in Colorado. They were looking for a way to raise student achievement and to make math feel “as real as possible” for students, said Burke.

Since then, more than 1,000 math and CTE teachers have been trained in the curriculum. The pair has also developed a similar course for Algebra 1, in which students use algebraic formulas to manage finances for an in-school business.

Despite the potential for student engagement, districts can be wary of applied-math courses like GiC, said Carol Fletcher, the deputy director of the University of Texas at Austin STEM Center, which provides training on the curriculum for teachers.

Math is “such a high-stakes course,” she said. “School districts are often hesitant to be experimental.”

But GiC is designed to cover all of the same Common Core State Standards that traditional geometry covers, Fletcher said. “In some ways, it is actually more challenging [than a traditional course], because so much of it is applied,” she said. “For kids who are used to just doing book math and being good at it, it pushes them out of their comfort zone.”

Providing multiple representations—different ways to show or describe the same mathematical concept—can help deepen students’ understanding, said Robert Berry, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Applying geometry principles to construction is one way to do that, he said.

Still, when it comes to curriculum’s effect on student achievement, data are limited. Math-test-score data from the Thompson R2-J school district, home to Loveland High School, showed that students in the GiC course at Loveland scored higher than students in traditional geometry in the three school years from 2009 to 2012. But as students self-selected into GiC, the data can’t determine whether the course was what caused the rise in test scores.

Burke now teaches in Jefferson County, Colo., where he’s also helping to grow the GiC program across the district. He said he hopes the expansion will provide more data.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2019 edition of Education Week as Students Build Tiny Houses to Bring Geometry Lessons to Life

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