GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Cooperate, collaborate, connect, contribute, construct. Those are just a few of the words starting with the prefix “co” that are part of the concept behind a new high school program in the Roaring Fork School District that is redefining the old industrial arts model.
(Co)studio classes began this school year at Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork and Basalt high schools, providing students with a credit-based, design-and-build learning experience that hasn’t been seen in the public schools for some time.
“It’s a program that partners local contractors, architects, entrepreneurs, educators … all people who have an interest in seeing this kind of education change,” explained instructor Matt Miller, who teaches introductory and advanced-level (co)studio classes at Glenwood Springs and Roaring Fork high schools.
Students in the advanced classes have already begun working on specific projects for their schools that will culminate the experience.
The chosen projects include a concession stand for Glenwood Springs High’s outdoor sports complex, a washing station and chicken coop as part of Roaring Fork High’s sustainable agriculture program, and a greenhouse and cold frames to introduce food production at Basalt High School.
The “(co)studio” name was the brainchild of Miller, a noted design/build instructor and curriculum developer who came to the Roaring Fork Valley from California to introduce the course locally.
The impetus to bring his concept into the local high schools was provided by Houses for Higher Education (H4HE), a local nonprofit begun two years ago that aims to retool vocational education by bringing together trade professionals and educators to provide a hands-on, real-world experience.
H4HE eventually wants to teach high school students how to work with actual clients to build houses, taking them through the planning, design, construction and even the sale of the houses. Proceeds would be used to fund college scholarships.
When the real estate market declined along with the economy, though, H4HE had to rethink its approach for the time being.
Last year, an after-school program was offered at Roaring Fork High in Carbondale, giving students an opportunity to build a horse shed on site at a local ranch. However, only four students participated in the project.
Already this year, more than 130 students are enrolled in seven different (co)studio classes across the Roaring Fork School District.
“We’ve finally figured out a model that works,” said Rachel Connor, the new program director for H4HE who was hired earlier this year. “The key to this program is integrating it into the regular school day and making it an elective class.
“The principals at the high schools really believed in what we were trying to do, and rallied behind it,” Connor said.
Eric Pedersen, who had been the Roaring Fork School District’s longtime director of the former Career Center vocational training program, teaches the course at Basalt High School along with Connor.
As the push for a standards-based public educational system surfaced in the last two decades, traditional vocational training kind of “got lost,” Pedersen said.
A lot of what used to be offered in the area high schools, from wood shop and auto mechanics to accounting, was no longer being taught in many schools, he said.
“For one thing, the schools don’t have the funding to continue to do all that we would like to do,” Pedersen said. “This model allows an outside group to come in and lend a hand, and to create a connection to the larger community.
“We have a myriad of professional fields here in our community, and our students can learn from that,” he said. “For some of these kids, it’s gearing them to be able to live and work in their home town if they choose, and not have to leave.”
Turning ideas into objects
At Glenwood Springs High School, the (co)studio program continues what the late Tom Grant had begun in the way of transforming the school’s wood shop program before his unexpected death last school year, said GSHS Principal Paul Freeman.
“Under Tom, the wood shop became a favorite place to work, where ideas became objects … to marry the work of the mind and that of the hand,” Freeman said.
With Miller’s architectural training and wood-working know-how, Freeman is confident that legacy will continue and that the program will prepare students for 21st century trade skills.
“It’s a place where students will learn to think like a designer, to solve real problems with elegant solutions and technical skill,” Freeman said.
The difference between shop class and (co)studio is its emphasis on working as a team to design something specifically and then building it, Connor said.
Already, the Glenwood students have built scale models expressing their own ideas for what they would like to see in a new outdoor concession stand at the school.
Senior Garrett Lowe thinks it would be great to combine a concession stand with a training room, “so it’s two different functions under the same roof,” he said.
“I like the class, because we can have our own input and see the progress of the project all the way through,” Lowe said.
Added fellow senior Justin Barham, “It’s definitely more fun than the shop classes I’ve taken before. It will be just like a job site, where this is our crew and we have a job to do. It’s more like the real world.”
Having an actual project to work on allows for more creativity, added GSHS junior Landen Camilletti.
“This way we can design our own things, instead of just going off something that’s in a textbook,” he said.
At Roaring Fork High in Carbondale, a Lowe’s Toolbox grant is helping the school build a washing station for the school’s unique grow dome and outdoor gardening complex, Connor said.
Students there will also build three chicken coops, one of which it will keep. The other two will be sold to make money for the program, she said.
Added H4HE board member Jason Sewell regarding the (co)studio program, “This is about giving our students tools to contribute to society.
“Whether they go on to join the local workforce or become successful entrepreneurs, our program aims to give students the foundational skills needed to think outside the box and come up with their own way of doing things,” Sewell said.