Learning by Doing: Tiny House Brings Community Together

By Caroline Bertrand

In the construction field, the industry need is dire. Ninety-one percent of contractors say they have a difficult time finding skilled workers (Soergel, 2018), yet student awareness of the opportunities available in this field is limited. Career exploration for high school students is best done through hands-on experience (Torpe, 2015). Western Albemarle High School, Charlottesville, Virginia, developed an ambitious project that brought together the school and the community to provide students with hands-on opportunities for career exploration to increase interest in the construction industry.

Building Teams, Student Learning, Engagement, and Involvement

The project aimed to build a tiny house on wheels. Kevin Matheny, a Career and Technical Education “shop” teacher with a strong construction background, spearheaded the endeavor. He has been effective at preserving woodworking tools and machines while adding 3-D printers and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) mills. His knowledge was crucial to the success of the project.

The first step was to present the concept to the school administration. The principal approved but added additional challenges: to ask the students to do ALL aspects of the work and to ask the community to fund the project the first year in exchange for the promise of purchasing from their businesses in subsequent years. The businesses that participated were pleased to offer donations and mentoring assistance. Also, they donated their time for all the critical tasks that students couldn’t learn to do safely, such as electrical, plumbing, installing appliances, insulation, and roofing.

Students had much to learn but worked hard to prepare the design. They had to participate in the recruitment of community partners for each step, which was challenging for them. Specifically, just speaking on the phone was a surprising struggle for these teens. Another challenge for students was planning ahead. However, as they communicated more with the businesses, students were amazed to see that, most of the time, the business community responded positively.

A proven strategy for teaching leadership skills to students is to put them in charge (Education World, n.d.). The project involved so many specific and detailed parts that some students became leaders and the go-to organizers for the project. Thus, students’ involvement became a big part of the project. Those students’ sense of responsibility was palpable. One came to school when sick because his role in the project was so essential. Another student, who admitted that she didn’t like school much, totally changed her view of school after taking charge of requesting supplies. She was glued to her phone during spring break to make sure the team had the materials needed to finish the assigned task. The business partners became so impressed with her involvement that she received a summer internship offer.

Parallel learning occurred. As students were learning, so was the teaching team. The teacher enlisted the assistance of the school technical drawing teacher in the area of house design and building assistance, as well as the school career specialist, to form an informal learning community to support the project. The mission of the learning team includes empowering the students to take the lead in the project. Providing this high level of empowerment for such a challenging project was a very new learning experience for the school team. The school professionals volunteered in the evenings and weekends.

The school career specialist’s played several roles. She helped to enlist the support of community partners, assisted students in preparing their presentations, and attended events with them. The high school was lucky to connect with Missy Gupton at AGC-VA (Associated General Contractors of Virginia), who gave students access to her enormous and powerful membership. Missy Gupton also helped the students apply for an educational grant to start the project.

Outcome and Results

In the process of implementing the project, a few lessons were learned. Selling the house was more difficult than anticipated. A local parent and realtor showed the house many times without result. An auction did not yield the desired payout, which included a provision to cover the cost of supplies for next year’s tiny house project. An additional hurdle was the permitting challenges that tiny houses on wheels face, being neither a vehicle nor a house. The role of the community partners in training and helping the students could be expanded through better planning.

The project was a resounding success for the school, students, and the community, particularly in terms of the students' own career development. Building a tiny house created excitement among students who participated in the project, as well as in the entire school. Students interested in art asked if they could help with interior design, for example. The students who built the house were given opportunities to interact with professionals and were impressed by the adults’ willingness to help. Other students were offered summer jobs or internships. They all learned career-related skills such as teamwork, professionalism, and to manage their work stress better. Several ended up going into the construction field. The most important outcome was the culminating activity when the house was transported to the Tiny House Expo, where students gave tours and charmed visitors to the point where the house was sold. As a result of the success, the school is now working on its next tiny house project.

For more details, view the following links:

Tiny house web page

Student-produced video here



Torpey, E. (January 2015) Career planning for high schoolers. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved March 13, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2015/article/career-planning-for-high-schoolers.htm

Soergel, A. (2018a, June 15). Where Are All the Builders? US News and World Report. Retrieved March 13, 2020, from https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-06-15/the-us-construction-industry-is-booming-but-where-are-the-builders

Paterson. J. (n.d.). Strategies for teaching students leadership skills. Education World. Retrieved February 26, 2020, from https://www.educationworld.com/tips-teaching-students-become-tomorrow%E2%80%99s-leaders


Caroline BertrandCaroline Bertrand is the long time career specialist at Western Albemarle High School. She has enjoyed evolving with the position, from focusing on special education and at-risk students, to career awareness in collaboration with counseling, to the current orientation towards work-based learning and concrete experiences for students. cbertrand@k12albemarle.org



The WAHS Tiny House team of Kevin Matheny, Chris Talmadge and Caroline Bertrand wishes to thank the business community for showing our young people that the adults want to support them, and especially Missy Gupton of AGC-VA for making this great adventure possible.

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