Around Kirkwood

Career Academies: Building Skills and Careers

The project is a part of the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Career Academy

Kirkwood and area school districts re-construct “shop class” into industry-focused curriculum with real-world relevance

It’s 9:15 on a Tuesday morning, and Caleb Austin Wagner is working on a house.

The 17-year-old Cedar County junior is in the middle of the Industrial Arts shop at Tipton High School, holding a roof truss and figuring out its best location in the nearly-complete roofline.

He can hold the full-width truss in one hand because it’s at scale-model size, just a few feet across, made of thin pine boards.

This trial run with a precise scale model will likely become reality this fall, as Wagner and his senior classmates get a shot at building the real deal: Another new house on the north side of Tipton, the latest project partnership with the school and Habitat for Humanity. Already, Habitat houses stand finished or in process in the reclaimed former mobile home park, with more on the drawing board.

The project is constructive in all senses, a part of the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Career Academy, one of more than 20 programs through Kirkwood Community College.

Since the late 1990s, Kirkwood and area high schools have introduced thousands of students to skilled career training, working closely with area professional groups, trade organizations and individual employers. Those connections make classroom studies relevant to current business trends and employer-desired skill sets.

The programs also are a beneficial conduit to college, giving motivated students ample opportunities to take dual-credit classes that count toward high school graduation and in-advance college credits.

Wagner’s ACE Academy instructor is Mike Wehde, a Tipton native and 23-year veteran teacher at Tipton High School. He was the lead instructor when the school launched the ACE Academy five years ago, and sees many benefits in the career-ready learning his students receive.

“This program is really focused on what’s going on in the job world now. It’s a lot different from the shop classes I had when I was in school. We teach skills every day that have a direct relationship with what our contractors and builders are using on the job. I’ve had several of our local builders look at our classwork and say they wish their school classes were like this when they were there,” Wehde said.

“The dual-credit aspect is another win-win for this academy. We have a couple senior students this year who will have enough credits to enter Kirkwood this fall with around a semester’s worth of college already earned. And, that’s at no cost to them, either. That’s money in the bank for those students!” he added.

The ACE Academy gives students several opportunities to focus on the broader skills needed in building trades, engineering and architecture beginning in their freshman year. Some students are involved in Project Lead the Way, a career-engaged, hands-on series of programs that show how math, technical knowledge and project work relate to current careers in the science, technical, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Meanwhile, the ACE academy focus includes courses in materials processing, architectural plans and specifications, and commercial construction. If students continue through the academy, both academy pathways converge on a course in civil engineering and architecture in a student’s junior year. This and several other classes in the curriculum are the dual-credit courses, offering concurrent high school and college credits.

A key developer of the ACE academy is Kirkwood Construction Management Instructor Joe Greathouse. The faculty member and building trades veteran says one of the greatest strengths of the ACE program is how students get to understand how classroom knowledge translates into job skills and career opportunities.

“We have been listening closely to recommendations from our local building contractors, company managers and other employers. They have been specific and focused on what they need new hires to know when they get started in architecture, construction and engineering jobs. We think this academy plan gets to the point of job-ready skills early on. We want the classroom teaching and activities directed to what the industry says is important,” Greathouse said.

A central component of the ACE Academy that gets to the heart of that goal is the new ACE Mentor Program. This initiative is national in scope, and already boasts more than 50,000 students involved around the U.S. Student participants join teams led by adult mentors employed in key engineering, science and technical fields. Students visit professional offices and workplaces, discussing current issues in the host companies’ marketplace and making clear the competitive environment and real-time job challenges.

“The ACE Mentor Program gives students a practical, hands-on view of a career’s everyday reality. That is really valuable for students to understand,” Greathouse added.

Back in Tipton, Mike Wehde pointed to similar revelations from some of his ACE students over the past few years.

“These academy classes have sometimes led students to get involved, then say ‘I tried it, and I don’t really want to do that for a job.’ You know, that’s OK, too. That is one of the practical, real-world benefits of getting this job knowledge to students in a realistic manner. They can learn the real facts about jobs and expectations before they invest a lot of class time and tuition in a program. But for others, they get excited early and get a head start on a good career with this same academy,” Wehde said.

For students across the Kirkwood service area, the 2014-15 school year will kick their experience up to a new level. Plans are nearing completion for the construction of a new, energy-efficient Sustainable Housing for Education Project (SHEP) building on the grounds of the Clear Creek Amana Community School District near Tiffin, Iowa.

The 1,500 square foot SHEP facility will be designed by ACE Mentor students with guidance from ACE Mentor professionals, including Shive-Hattery Engineers and Architects of Eastern Iowa, with construction oversight pledged by the Greater Iowa City Homebuilders Association. Other partners committed to assist so far include Hills Bank and Trust, Zero Energy, LLC and the Iowa Ready Mix Association.

Standing in his Jones Hall office at Kirkwood, Greathouse becomes obviously enthusiastic as he describes the development and potential of the project, for students and community alike.

“The folks at Clear Creek Amana have already heard from me three times on this project, and the support in the area just keeps on growing,” he said. “My goal is to get this facility built as well as possible, for as low a cost as possible. Maybe the most beautiful thing is, these students will not only learn by doing while building this SHEP facility built, but many of them will be able to tell their classmates, ‘Hey, look—we designed and built this!’  Later on, I can imagine them telling their own kids–years from now–the same thing. That’s a good definition of community investment,” Greathouse said.

At Clear Creek Amana, Principal Brad Fox also senses the excitement for the upcoming construction, from his own teachers and students alike.

“The ACE program brings the needed ‘real life’ application to these courses. Our students will have the opportunity to design, plan, and construct the facility on our school campus. I have seen and observed the excitement in the student’s faces as they think about the opportunity they are going to have as being a part of the ACE program. This is going to be a great project, and we feel fortunate to be the first beneficiaries of it at our school,” Fox said.

Meanwhile in his Tipton High School shop, Mike Wehde watches the students continue to work on the Habitat for Humanity scale model. He remembers one more example of how the ACE Academy efforts are paying off for everyone. Wehde recalls the work day with senior students last fall, when local contractors paired up with students to install windows in the newest Habitat house.

“Each student got to tackle a window installation, guided by a pro mentoring them on best practices and smart ways to work. This spring I heard that one of our students went to their mentor they had on that day, and asked if there was a chance they’d have part-time work this summer. The contractor said yes, and that kid has a good job experience lined up. That’s how it is supposed to work! It’s a good deal for everybody,” Wehde said.

More information on the ACE Academy career programs is available from Joe Greathouse, 319-398-5428, or via