Student Program Scraps the Boring, Starts Inspiring

Filed in Membership, Workforce Development by on August 8, 2016 6 Comments
solar panel

ACE students learn about installing solar panels.

A partnership among an Iowa community college, two HBAs and a committed group of building industry mentors is opening doors to students interested in construction and engineering careers – and opening the eyes of the students’ parents about how rewarding these careers can be.

ACE – short for Architecture, Construction and Engineering – is a national program, and in Iowa it’s run by the construction management department at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. The school draws from a seven-county area that includes 32 school districts and 40 high schools.

Four years after its launch, ACE Academy of Eastern Iowa has active programs in 24 of those 32 districts. Student projects have included tree houses, a baseball dugout (complete with the press box), a “tiny house” built from a former storage container, and a 1,500-square-foot STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) student center.

For the STEM center, the school district only had to come up with $45,000 for the $400,000-plus project because local builders and businesses gave generous in-kind donations and supplied building products.

“We have quite a bit of local and regional buy-in,” said Joe Greathouse, assistant professor of construction management at Kirkwood.

That’s an understatement. The ACE program is now serving an average of 500 students per year.

ACE students look at the building plans for a new McDonald's restaurant.

ACE students look at the building plans for a new McDonald’s restaurant.

And, Greathouse believes, the ACE program can be replicated just about anywhere – wherever there is a core group of builders and other construction industry professionals, suppliers, schools and HBAs willing to work together.

Getting Started

Most high schools already had wood shop or technical education classes as part of their curriculums. The problem: A lot of the technology was antiquated and the projects — including an abundance of birdhouses and bookcases, according to Greathouse — were not particularly inspired or challenging.

On top of that, parents weren’t enthusiastic about encouraging their children to sign up. “We had to break down the perception barriers,” he said. “It’s not a problem with architecture — that’s still seen as a white-collar job, but for many of these parents, construction was just some guy in a pickup truck.”

To solve the curriculum problem, the college gathered a group of teachers and invited HBA representatives and industry professionals to meet with them. Together, they discussed what kinds of skills kids need, and got rid of the boring stuff. “We asked, ‘If we want to give high school kids the best preparation we can to be part of the industry, what would those courses be?’” Greathouse said.

Working with Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an organization that trains STEM teachers so they can encourage problem-solving strategies and critical thinking, the group created a four-year, two-pronged curriculum path, with the ACE kids taking construction technology, materials processing and architecture classes the first and second years and joining PLTW students for a civil engineering and architecture course in their junior years.

In their senior year, the ACE students take classes that concentrate on either commercial or residential construction – and both, like the civil engineering and architecture classes, offer college credit.

Experience is Key

With the curriculum taken care of, program organizers turned to the other half of the equation: a mentoring program. ACE students – and their parents – needed examples of successful adults who had chosen careers in construction. They could serve as role models, career advisors – and possibly offer work experience.

That’s where the two participating HBAs – Greater Iowa City and Greater Cedar Rapids – have proven invaluable. From home builders and remodelers, to designers, architects and trade partners, “they saw the relevancy,” Greathouse said, and members now work the ACE students individually and together on group projects.

And whether it’s a treehouse for charity or that tricked-out baseball dugout, “the project doesn’t matter,” Greathouse said.

“What matters for these kids is the process, working hand in hand with local professionals and seeing it go from design to actually being built. We don’t stop at the theoretical side. Kids want to get their hands in.”



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Comments (6)

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  1. Rick Larkey says:

    While the effort to work with ACE and PLTW to change the focus of the existing program is commendable in that it meets the needs of builders and developers for professional workers in the industry. What is unfortunate is that the effort appears, by the description in article to forsake a larger need for people to fill technical and trade occupations in plumbing, HVAC, electrical and the 40 other trades that are needed. We are committed to working with the education community to provide good career opportunities for those who are not suited to earn a four year degree and are better suited to have a career in the trades.

    Too bad they couldn’t have expanded their sights by bring in HBI’s PACT curriculum to offer an exciting introduction to the trades, linked to additional trade training. In California the local HBA in cooperations with the California Homebuilder Foundation has developed the four year Building Industry Technology Academy (BITA) curriculum that incorporates PACT and better prepares students for careers in the trades.

    • NAHB Now says:

      Thanks for your comments, Rick. The good news: This program is not the only one supported by our outstanding Iowa HBAs, who understand the need to prepare the next generation of trades as well as professionals in the architecture, construction and engineering industries. Stay tuned for additional coverage. And please tell us whom to contact about BITA so we can learn more about that program– write us at

  2. Great program!
    Iowa’s time is NOW!
    There are many universities, colleges, community colleges and vocational schools addressing our industry’s needs! One of the oldest programs in the U.S. was started in 1954 by Professor Lee Evans at the University of Denver. 62 years later we are experiencing more construction/management education.
    The more we share and exchange ideas throughout the nation and the globe the more we will be able to address all of our concerns of today and tomorrow.
    And, maybe it is time to expand our 20/20 clubs to associate members to improve the trades????
    ONwards and UPwards!

  3. Tim Ruth says:

    As some one that was involved from the start on this program one thing we stressed as the wide variety of options. We have students go to a four year program and students go right to work. We stress the big picture. Having watched this bloom it shows don’t wait for them to come go to the young people it is our future.
    The great thing about this is having our community college involved and taking the lead we can spread out over the entire area rather than just the area covered by our HBA.
    The answer to shortages quality workers is engage them young and train them well.

  4. Benny J. Pritchett says:

    We need more examples of all of the great training and educational programs, especially directed to the building trades, that local and state HBA’s are conducting across the country. The HBA of Alabama in conjunction with their Alabama Home Builders Foundation, local HBA’s and State of Alabama regulatory and licensing agencies has initiated carpentry and plumbing program in several locations across the state. Is there a centralized location within NAHB, HBI or the Home Innovation Research Lab that attempts to capture, catalog and/ or organize these types of programs? That would be a tremendous reference tool for other HBA’s looking to begin or enhance training programs in their area.

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