Math students put skills to work building house

They pass their tests, then pass each other tape measures and levels

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Two Evergreen district schools have taken a hammer-and-carrot approach to entice students to better learn math.

Also playing a role: Power drills, circular saws, levels, caulking guns and paint brushes.

Evergreen and Mountain View high schools this year have launched a “Math in Green Construction” course in which dozens of Integrated II math students are constructing twin 504-square foot cottages, one on each campus.

The two-hour block course — students earn one credit of required state math curriculum and one elective credit — is a hands-on way for students to apply real-life mathematics, to boost teamwork and self-confidence and to get outdoors for physical action.

The latter’s the carrot: Despite a dreary, soggy winter and spring, students say they’ve had a blast giving house-building a try. Enough so to complete homework and master other material required to stay eligible for the project, instructors say.

“They find a way to get their math work done so they can build, instead of having to do more math (indoors),” said Eric Dodge, who oversees the construction at Mountain View.

“We have a 95 percent successful homework completion rate,” Dodge said. Students who range from freshman to seniors cut their teeth on geometry, algebra and probability in the year-long course, one of three math classes required for high school graduation.

That’s far better than seen in regular math classrooms where discipline is not so cut-and-dried.

And, lo and behold, students who do homework are racking up improved exam scores, too.

For obvious safety reasons, discipline is emphasized. It’s a good match for a team focus that carries from inside calculation of where to place studs, trusses and siding to the cooperative lifting, hanging and finishing outside.

“We build a culture that gets them working together,” said Mountain View math teacher Ann Robertson, who has paired with teacher Kristy Gilmore to handle the coursework.

“They’re dependent on each other. It takes two people to hold something, and often a third to (complete the task),” Robertson said.

Students and teachers alike say they weren’t sure just what they were in for, when math instructors began to recruit pupils last year for the new course.

Each school reports that demand is high for 2011-12. Evergreen already has 80 to 90 students enrolled, up from 58 this year. Mountain View numbers are much the same.

Girls are in the minority (13 of 58 at Evergreen), but their share is growing fast. At Mountain View, eight of 60 current participants are girls, but 29 have signed up for next year, nearly 40 percent of the total.

“I’m a pro. What can I say?” quipped Evergreen freshman Sabrina Hanson, 14, after she deftly sliced off a section of siding with a circular saw, with her classmate, Kelsie Slagle, 19, a senior, holding the slab steady.

“Girls can actually do stuff; we’re not dumb,” said Hanson, whose eighth-grade teacher had suggested the class. “It’s like nothing I’d imagined it be. The people and the experiences are a lot different than a normal class. You get to apply what you learn.”

At Mountain View, Chelsea Pritchard, 16, a sophomore, voiced similar thoughts.

“I really do like it a lot. You get new experience with tools and stuff; I got over my fear of saws,” Pritchard said as she smoothed caulk on exterior siding.

More to the point, Pritchard and her classmates see how much math, and muscle, go into house building. “You actually can look at your own house and see, ‘Oh, that’s how they did it,’” she said.

Andrew Milling, 16, an Evergreen sophomore, is keen on vocational courses. But this class really blends book skills with his sense of adventure.

“Roofing is my favorite; I love being up in the air and working,” Milling said. “We’re learning the math. It’s a really fun, fun class.”

The best part, he said, is that a family could soon use what teachers call a “park model home” that can be sited on a concrete foundation.

Evergreen hopes to sell the houses, each with one bedroom and bathroom, a stacked washer-dryer alcove and full air conditioning, for about $40,000 to recoup materials costs. (Student labor is free, of course.)

All the wiring and other components are fully inspected by license authorities to meet local building codes.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.