Thinking back to his youth, River Bend Career and Technical Center’s Construction Technology and Residential Energy Instructor, Lance Mills, remembers always building “things”! From tree forts to go-karts, Lance was always into finding scrap lumber and materials and turning his finds into something “useful” for the time, like a tree fort or a go-cart. He even remembers going to construction sites in his neighborhood and picking up bent nails that he would later straighten with a rock for use on his various projects.
His creativity and ingenuity for building led him to his first job after high school, as an apprentice carpenter for a neighbor who ran a construction company. It was there that he really started at the bottom, and learned from skilled carpenters; beginning with the jobs no one else wanted to do, and perfecting his skills as he made his way in the trade. Over the years, Lance has worked for small construction companies; spent time constructing large horse barns and buildings; and even ran his own small business for ten years before going back to college to become a teacher.
Since making the transition from carpenter, Lance has taught at Rivendell Academy, where they needed someone to take over and build a technology education/science program following a teacher’s mid-year departure; to Connecticut River Academy, where he expanded his role in student “self-directed” learning; to Oxbow High School in technology education; to River Bend Career and Technical Center, where he taught a combination of technology education and English language arts in the Pre-Tech Program. While working in Pre-Tech, he really began to see the shortage of skilled young people entering the construction fields; while, at the same time, realized the large number of good-paying, satisfying career openings in these same trades. As a result, he was eager to help launch a new program a few years ago called “Construction Technology and Residential Energy” (CTRE).
The CTRE program is loosely based on the older Building Trades model, where students spend time actually building useful structures for the community, but it is more focused on skill development than on completing a large scale project. The program, like all programs at River Bend, relies on community members who help direct what is needed in the particular trade or profession. In addition, since the construction trades are so diverse, Lance’s program depends on specific Cooperative Education experiences, where second-year students actually spend much of their time working with an employer in our area related to a specific field of interest; such as plumbing, or electrical, or foundations, or solar energy. This model follows some of the same principles as an older apprenticeship model.
The curriculum also helps prepare a student for a number of post-secondary experiences at technical colleges around New England. As Lance looks at the trade and building industry, he is seeing many opportunities for interested students, as the construction workforce continues to age-out.
An example of how the program works, that is much more focused on student learning than on project completion, is a residential solar energy panel project. Lance has become certified to teach this unit to students, and he works in combination with a team at Vermont Technical College. Through this unit, each student will build, wire, and measure output of their own household solar panel. The skills they learn can be applied throughput their careers, but the actual projects each student completes are meant for the lab and not for a particular customer.