“When are we ever going to need to know this?”

Students have posed that question to their teachers as far back as anyone can remember, probably.

More than 100 sixth-graders at Washington West and Campbellton elementary schools now have an answer.

They have seen their math, English, science, art and other lessons put to practical use as they worked in teams alongside high school students at Four Rivers Career Center to build doghouses they had designed themselves.

This project-based learning assignment was the first in the BUILD Academy launched by the Washington School District this school year with funding provided by a WINGS Collaborative STEAM Grant. BUILD stands for Building Unique and Innovative Learning by Design.

Each of the four sixth-grade classes (three from Washington West and one from Campbellton) have taken turns traveling to the Career Center daily to work with high schoolers in the engineering, graphic communications, building construction and marketing programs to complete each step of the project — from coming up with a design and blueprint for their doghouse to actually building it and then advertising and marketing it for sale.

Come May, all of the completed doghouses will be sold at an auction that the students are helping to plan. The tentative date has been set for May 10. However, before that, all of the completed doghouses will be displayed at The Missourian’s annual Family Reading Night scheduled for Friday, March 1, at Washington Middle School.

Washington Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer, who has gone to Four Rivers to watch the sixth-graders at work, said it has been exciting to see the students making new connections in their learning.

“The students are engaged in different opportunities and learning experiences and make connections with math, English language arts and science in ways that they have never really made before,” she said.

“They are making decisions, learning about how to work in teams, developing that entrepreneurial mindset and how to design and think strategically to actually produce a product.”

Lindsay Kober, a sixth-grade teacher at Washington West, said although both she and her students were a little apprehenisve at first about how the project was going to come together, it was even more productive than they had hoped, especially in the areas of communication and teamwork.

“This type of project puts them in situations where they get to experience problem-solving together,” said Kober, noting that students worked in groups of three and four to design and build their doghouses. “When you butt heads, what do you do? How do you politely solve it? I didn’t come over to solve their problems. I would maybe give them some prompting, but I did not solve any problems for them.

“They did struggle at times,” she said. “That’s what so many of them remember and learned from this — teamwork, because that was a big deal for them.”

First: Planning, Designing and Building

Kober and her students were the first of the four sixth-grade classes to get started with the project, which began with research.

Before the students could even begin designing a doghouse, they needed to know more about the types of dogs there are and dog behaviors, so they took a field trip to Purina Farms in Gray Summit, where they played with various dogs and heard from trainers.

“They taught us things to keep in mind, designing a doghouse for the size and type of dog you have,” said Kober. “They gave us some valuable information, like dogs don’t like big doors. They want to duck in. The kids used that kind of information as they were designing their doghouse.”

A local veterinarian, Dr. Daniel Smith, Washington, also met with the students to talk about different dog breeds and their various likes and dislikes.

To prepare for building their doghouses, the students made a field trip to Lowe’s to learn more about the types of materials they would need.

“The students also learned little things, like which side of the wood to use if there are knots. So when they had their big sheet of plywood lying in front of them, they had to decide which side is the best to use on the outside,” said Kober. “They applied that knowledge — we learned to put any knots on the inside, where people won’t see them.”

When it came time to get to work each group of students operated as a business, which meant each came up with a company name and logo. Within each group, the sixth-graders brainstormed design ideas and then met with a Four Rivers design student to figure out how to bring all of their competing ideas together into one blueprint, said Kober.

After the blueprints were finished, the project advanced to the carpentry stage, where Four Rivers building construction students served as foremen for each team of sixth-graders.

The sixth-graders were very hands-on with every aspect of the project, said Kober. They took measurements (which provided many math lessons on fractions and decimals) and learned the meaning of the carpentry motto “measure twice, cut once.” They hammered nails, and after bending many of them by accident, learned that it’s a much harder job than it looks.

High Schoolers Ended Up Learning Too

Four Rivers Director Andy Robinson said just like the project was intended to provide real-world lessons for the sixth-graders, it did the same thing for the high school students.

“Our engineering and construction students turned into 30-year-olds arguing with each other just as if it was a real job site,” he said with a smile. “That was a benefit of this project that we didn’t see coming — the high school students were getting lessons in communication too . . . Their communication skills have improved, their teamwork, their leadership.

“I didn’t realize the positive effect this would have on our students, but the best way to learn anything is to teach it because you suddenly realize what you don’t know,” said Robinson.

Four Rivers building construction teachers Rob York and Garry Gerhart agreed.

“This is the experience they’ll have on the job site eventually,” said York. “We tend to teach our students over the two years to lead, not just to be a tradesperson. There will be several of them that will be running work, and this sort of thing really helps with organization and working with other people. They learn doing this that they need to step back and let the kids do the work wherever possible. It’s easy for them to just do it, but that doesn’t teach the kids anything.”

Working with the sixth-graders also has taught the high schoolers about being good role models and setting good examples, said Robinson, noting that many of them look at the sixth-graders like younger brothers and sisters.

“At first, I had people worried about the sixth-graders spending so much time with the 18-year-olds, thinking they’ll pick up their bad habits, but it’s been just the opposite,” said Robinson. “Across the board, all of these high school kids rose to the challenge. It gives them a sense of accomplishment to teach somebody.”

Auction Will Fund Next Year’s BUILD Academy

The BUILD Academy was initially funded by a WINGS Collaborative STEAM Grant, which provides up to $10,000 to help a team of educators implement innovative learning experiences in the areas of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math.

Plans are for the BUILD Academy now to become a self-funded program, with this year’s doghouses being auctioned off in May to raise money for next year’s project, which is not expected to be doghouses again, but rather something entirely new.

Logistically, the BUILD Academy as it was implemented this school year isn’t something that all of Washington’s sixth-grade classes will be able to participate in (Washington West and Campbellton were selected based on proximity and number of students), but Dr. VanLeer is hopeful that sixth-grade teachers in the other elementary schools can come up with ways to replicate the project at their locations.

“I don’t have enough space, time or resources for all of the sixth-graders to come to Four Rivers. If the fifth- or sixth-grade teachers at other elementaries have a project in mind that requires specific learning experiences, field trips and business partners that they need in order to deliver that curriculum and instruction, then we would want to have that conversation and figure out if that’s something we can do on their campus, and where we need to go to get that done.

“I’m challenging people in our district — teachers, leaders and principals — to be thinking about developing those types of experiences throughout the district and let’s figure out how to take something like this to scale,” she said.

“Four Rivers is a jewel. We have a wonderful opportunity to pool the resources there and use the expertise of the people in the building, so if we are doing a BUILD Academy in Campbellton or Augusta, it may need to look significantly different,” said Dr. Van Leer. “It might have an agricultural base or it might be something entirely different, and that just requires us to think differently, and we’re in the process of doing that.”

For Kober, even though the doghouse project has yet to be fully completed, she is already looking forward to next year’s BUILD Academy and the possibilities it will mean for her students.

“It’s exciting to see that type of learning,” she remarked.