From Classroom to Construction Site with the Career Center

May 2024

article by jessica renstrom | photos by nathan satran

“Our construction project is just like any other new home construction you might see around town except that we have a lot more people working on it at any given time,” explains Mark Bolt, House Construction Teacher at the Billings Career Center. Why? This construction site is also a classroom. 

Students are currently engaged in hands-on learning at 4645 Liahona Drive, the 48th home built by Billings Career Center students. The Billings Career Center offers students a variety of trade classes, including Interior Design/Home Improvement, Building Construction, Geometry and Construction, Electrical, and Urban Agriculture. Students from these courses benefit from in-depth instruction and real-world experience as they use their knowledge to build a house from the ground up, thanks to funding from the Home Builders Association of Billings. 


Mark Bolt’s students are responsible for nearly all aspects of the construction process from start to finish: “When school starts in the fall, the foundation walls have been poured along with the basement and garage floors and maybe the driveway. Our students complete almost all the other phases of construction.” Students finish the framing, windows and doors, roofing, insulation, flooring, trim, cabinets, siding, and even special finishes. 

By the end of the school year, students have greatly expanded their knowledge. “They have developed some skills in nearly every phase of home building and know what they like and don't when considering which trade to pursue,” explains Mark. “Even students who don't pursue a career in construction still have learned valuable skills that they can use in their homes someday.” 

Many Career Center students eventually pursue careers in the trade industry, including the current General Contractor for house #48, Ryan Henderson. “I was a student in the program while attending West High, and I worked on houses #17 and #18,” says Ryan, who attributes the Career Center’s home building program to the start of his 33 years in the construction industry. “I didn’t know I would go into construction until I started the program. It gives opportunities for students to see different paths they may not have known.” 

When it opened last year, Ryan, an HBA member who was selected by the HBA Board of Directors, was eager to serve as the volunteer general contractor. Since then, he has worked diligently to get more wholesalers and suppliers involved with the home and demonstrate proper installation techniques to students.  


Electrical installation of the home is also completed by students. “The Electrical class, for exclusively junior and senior students, is solely responsible for all wiring systems at the Career Center house,” states David Tolton, Billings Career Center Teacher of Engineering and Electronics. “This includes all aspects of code adherence, circuit design, service installation, distribution circuits, rough-in and finish wiring, and low-voltage systems.” 

Although knowledge of electrical systems benefits students as future homeowners, many of David’s students pursue similar careers after building Career Center homes. “Numerous graduates are currently working as electricians and general contractors, some of which have their own contracting businesses. An increasing number of students have enrolled as Montana Registered Apprentices and work professionally for electrical contractors as part of their high school days, giving them a launch in both experience and pay in advance of graduation.”  


In addition to constructing the house, students are also tasked with beautifying the home inside and out. The Career Center’s Agriculture Education Teacher, Joylynn Petrosky, works with students to develop the knowledge and skills to create the home’s landscaping. “They learn about designing and redesigning landscapes, which many of them will do during their lifetime. They also gain practical skills in landscape installation that they can utilize one way or another in their lives after high school.” 

Creating the home’s landscaping requires both significant planning and time-intensive installation of many elements, including sprinkler systems, edging, weed fabric, rock, plants, and sod. “Being able to look at a yard that they landscaped is the ultimate reward,” states Joylynn. “Students will work in the cold, wet, and mud and often run into frustrations. Working as a team to accomplish a project of this caliber is something they don't quickly forget.” 


Inside the home, students of Luci Wollschlager, Interior Design Teacher and owner of A-Line Drafting and Design, enhance the space as they plan, bid, and install all the chosen design elements. “My students start out learning the basics of space planning and move on to the material identification and selections. They work in groups to select all the finishes for the house,” explains Luci.  

After learning programs like AutoCAD and SketchUp, students create models to show their recommendations. “From there, the students create design boards to present to their peers and to the Homebuilders Association, who vote for the winning design.”  

Two West High juniors, Mia Lantis and Audrey Tulett, are this year's interior design competition winners. “My design was inspired by a more modern contemporary look,” Audrey shares. “With the help of my partner, we were able to combine our personal styles to find the perfect colors, flooring, tiles, counters, etc., to create a design that flows together.”  

“We hoped to make our design fun, memorable, and one that future buyers would fall in love with,” adds Mia. 

The house is scheduled to be completed by May 31, but the public can get a sneak peek of the students’ work during an Open House on May 25.   

Originally printed in the May 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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