As everyone knows, the three rules of success for any venture are location, location, location.
That proved to be the case for the building construction program at Edmonton’s McNally High School. Several years ago, teacher Todd Torrie got approval to have his students build a single cabin. The finished product sat for a few months behind the school, which sits next to a recreational trail atop the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, overlooking downtown Edmonton.
As it happens, a regular user of that trail was area resident Lana Ohler-Madsen, director of HeLa Ventures, which operates an outdoor adventure and education camp near Rocky Mountain House. This led to a relationship between the camp and the school, and last summer students completed their seventh structure for the camp.
“I’m amazed every year to see the kids step back and look at what they’ve produced,” Torrie says. “Every single kid steps back and says, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”
Each year the camp specifies what kind of building it wants, and Torrie’s students spend the school year building it in McNally’s shop and parking lot. While all the students learn the various aspects of construction that go into the project, they also drift naturally into specific roles such as leadership, framing and electrical, Torrie says.
When he was first establishing the program, Torrie felt it was important to produce a product that the school could sell, thereby recouping costs and enabling him to sustain and grow the program.
“That was the motivator, to produce a product as opposed to the typical every-kid-takes-home-a-cutting-board kind of thing,” he says.
At the tail end of each school year, when the new building is ready for delivery, the camp arranges for a truck to haul it to its destination. Some students accompany the cabin to the camp, where they spend the better part of two days completing the assembly.
Since the camp caters to school groups, the cabins are destined to be used mostly by other students. This fact, as well as seeing the product in its intended setting, has a noticeable impact on the construction students, says camp director Ohler-Madsen.
“There’s that internal connection with why they’re building the building and what it’s going to be used for,” she says.
Given its clientele, partnering with a school seemed like a natural fit for the camp, says Ohler-Madsen, and with demand for the camp’s services growing every year, she sees the relationship with McNally as an ongoing one.
“Our need for serving our clientele has grown, and because it’s all connected with the schools and the school system, it works really well,” she says.
The real-life aspect of the project — the fact that they’re building and delivering a real product that will be used by real clients — generates a sense of pride in the students, says Torrie.
He’s had occasions when his students have been working to complete their cabin assembly at the end of a long day, with the evening light disappearing and him trying to convince them that the rest could wait until the next day.
“In those times, I’ve had kids come and say, ‘No, no, Mr. Torrie, get us some light, we can do this,’” he says.
“You see them kind of rally together and do stuff that’s beyond their years. Those are really cool moments for me when I get to see them step up and want to take this on because they have so much passion and pride for what they’ve done.” ❚
The roof of McNally’s most recently built cabin holds two electricity-producing solar panels. These are tied to the electrical grid, so the building can draw additional power from the grid, if required, or feed extra power into it. Exploring and expanding on renewable energy options will be a focus as the program moves forward, says teacher Todd Torrie.
Also in the future, and partially fuelled by interest in the tiny home movement, some students have expressed interest in building a small home.
“I expect we will venture down that road too,” Torrie says.
Q&A with Todd Torrie
What has been the key to the success of your program?
I have been very fortunate to work in a district and have an administration that has been willing to take the leap of faith that the students, educational technician Roy Marko and I could take on a large-scale project and see it through. We want to ensure that learning is authentic and that students engage in real work that allows them to apply the knowledge and skills that they developed, over time, in the CTS program.
Our first cabin was built without having a buyer in place, however, our subsequent builds had a committed “customer” who came to us for a specialized cabin. The students have really embraced the work, seeing that it is real-world experience that they are gaining. I have been very fortunate to have been able to step back and see the energy, commitment and pride that the students share. I think that shared energy keeps driving and enhancing our program.
How has working with an external group changed your approach as a teacher?
The process of having a customer come into our classroom brings an awareness to the students and me that the work we are doing matters. At McNally, our vision for learning extends beyond the walls of the classroom. I have embraced the opportunity to find ways to bring our community into the work that we get to do at school. When students have a real job for real customers, they develop a greater sense of urgency to complete the work and meet high quality standards.
What advice do you have for colleagues who are interested in setting up a similar program?
My answer would be to start small. Find real opportunities for students to design and build a real product that has an authentic market.