Tiny office, big opportunity
MONTICELLO – A steel shipping container sitting outside the Jones County Regional Center in Monticello isn’t storing equipment or supplies. High school students are transforming it into a tiny office that will be relocated to construction sites across eastern Iowa.
It’s all a part of the Architecture, Construction and Engineering Academy (referred to as ACE) where high school students gain real-world experience and industry certifications, preparing them for both college and careers.
Make no mistake, these students are not building birdhouses. These students are learning about architectural plans, 3-D modeling, residential construction, civil engineering and architecture – and they are putting that knowledge to work.
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“We are building awareness, inspiring kids and giving them real-world experience,” said Chris Caldwell, adjunct instructor at the Jones County Regional Center, one of four Kirkwood centers that offers high school students the opportunity to explore career options while earning both high school and college credit.
“We are taking students from darkness to light,” Caldwell said, who himself has decades of experience in the skilled trades. “Most of these students had no idea of the wide range of construction careers available to them.”
The Jones County Regional Center serves high school students from eight surrounding districts: Monticello, Anamosa, Midland, Central City, Cascade, Maquoketa Valley, Springville and North Cedar. At approximately 30,000 square feet, the center houses state-of-the-art classrooms, career and technical labs for academic programs, and administrative offices.
“This is not a Kirkwood initiative, it is a partnership initiative,” said Lisa Folken, director of the Jones County Regional Center.
By partnering with schools, the center is able to provide a central location where all students have access to cutting-edge technology and capital-intensive programs that would be cost-prohibitive for schools to provide on their own. The academies are developed collaboratively and take into account the needs of the community, industry, students and the school districts.
“This is successful because of the schools’ commitment,” Folken said. “We meet monthly with our coordinating council of school representatives and the schools drive the bus.”
Currently, 318 students are enrolled at the center. Enrollment is evenly split between career and technical education programs and liberal arts college-transfer courses.
Employers are key partners in supporting career and technical education through real-world learning experiences for students. The ACE program’s partnership with Rinderknecht Associates, Inc., a general contractor located in Cedar Rapids, gives students the opportunity to apply academic and technical skills in a real-life work setting while introducing them to high-skill, high-paying careers available in their surrounding communities.
“All of the trades are struggling to find enough skilled workers,” said Scott Pantel, vice president of marketing for Rinderknecht Associates.
“By partnering with the ACE program to construct our tiny office pods, we not only get a quality product, we are growing our future workforce,” Pantel said.
Prior to the partnership, Rinderknecht purchased pre-made mobile office pods for storing blueprints and tools on site and for hosting job-site meetings. As part of the partnership, Rinderknecht provides the materials and supplies and the students construct the project to their custom specifications.
“For about the same price we are getting a much better quality product,” said Eric Heisdorffer, operations manager with Rinderknecht Associates, Inc.
Now in its second year, students can witness the fruits of their labor. The tiny offices constructed by last year’s class are being used on one of Rinderknecht’s current projects - the Cedar Rapids History Center. Knowing that they are working on a real-world project and not an arbitrary school assignment has a big impact on students.
“The end product is meant to be functional and look professional,” said Craig Stadtmueller, career development coordinator at the center. “Students realize that both wing tips and red wings will need to be comfortable in here.”
“Knowing that this project is really going to be used is stressful and motivating,” said Carter Mohr, a junior from Midland Community High School in Wyoming, Iowa. “I just keep thinking ‘don’t mess up.’ I want to work hard and do my best.”
For some students, like Carter, the ACE academy solidifies a desire to work in the skilled trades. He would like to either continue his education at Kirkwood, or enter a registered electrician apprenticeship program after he graduates from high school. Other students, like Nicole Guenther, also a junior from Midland Community High School, aspire to continue into postsecondary education.
“I took the class because I have always liked working on projects,” Nicole said. “I want to go to college for interior design and this experience gives me some skills other students won’t have.”
Stadtmueller says that all students benefit from career and technical programs in high school, which enable students to select courses of study that are tied to their college and career goals.
“Besides giving students real-world experience, we see other benefits, too,” Stadtmueller said. “We see them making better decisions, improving assessment scores and being more successful.”
Through this career-centered approach, students get to explore possible careers and, in many cases, earn industry credentials and certifications. With these stackable credentials, students can go right into work and be highly marketable, or have a good foundation to succeed in postsecondary education, all of which support the Future Ready Iowa initiative to have 70 percent of Iowans with education or training beyond high school by 2025.
The classes in the ACE program are aligned with first-year classes in Kirkwood Community College’s construction management and architecture programs. Student who complete the ACE academy and transfer into one of these programs at Kirkwood have 10 to 12 college credits under their belts, saving both time and money.
For students like Kolby Soper, a junior from Anamosa, the real-world experiences have helped keep him engaged and in school.
“I really didn’t like school before,” Kolby said. “I have to be doing something or it doesn’t interest me.”
With a career goal in mind, Kolby can finally say he likes school. He is considering going into the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry when he graduates next year.
“Being part of this program makes me want to come to school each morning and that is not something I ever thought I would say,” Kolby said.
About the Kirkwood Jones County Regional Center
The Jones County Regional Center provides a means for high school juniors and seniors from eight school districts to take advantage of college-level courses, career academy programs, and advanced high school curriculum not offered at their individuals high schools.
Located on the south side of Monticello, the Jones County Regional Center is strategically located near the midpoint between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque.
What is a career academy?
According to the Iowa statute, career academies are career-oriented programs of study that link secondary career and technical education to a postsecondary education program. The career academy concept has three key elements:
- Concurrent enrollment coursework where students earn both high school and college credit upon successful completion of community college coursework
- A sequential sequence of coursework with a career theme which provide an appropriate foundation for entrance into the postsecondary program
- Strong partnerships between employers, school districts, higher education institutions, and the community
Academies offered at the Jones County Regional Center include:
- Architecture, Construction and Engineering
- Advanced Manufacturing/Engineering Technology and Welding
- Arts and Sciences I
- Arts and Sciences II
- Automotive Technology
- Emergency Medical Services
- Engineering: Project Lead the Way
- Graphics, Media and Communications
- Hospitality Management
- Information Technology
- Patient Care