Students learn real-world skills by building projects

FERRISBURGH/VERGENNES — “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” the old Chinese proverb eloquently says.
University of Vermont professor David Raphael may not teach his students how to fish. But the Panton resident and owner of LandWorks — the Middlebury outdoor design firm — is equipping UVM students in his “Sustainable Landscape Architecture and Construction” class with skills for life.
In the course’s second year, 17 students this spring built a boardwalk at Vergennes Union Elementary School, which bridges wetlands to the school’s outdoor classroom. They wrapped up construction last Thursday on new benches, a kayak rack and a kiosk at Button Bay State Park in Ferrisburgh. And last year, Raphael’s students built several staircases down to the Lake Champlain shoreline at Button Bay, as well as adjacent platforms and a boardwalk that leads to the park’s Button Point Natural Area.
As part of UVM’s growing commitment to service learning — the idea of educating students through acts that benefit others — Raphael’s class teaches students how to design, plan and construct environmentally friendly infrastructure projects. Raphael helps his students build a foundation of basic design knowledge and skills. Then, he lets them loose, encouraging them to apply and develop what they’ve learned by designing and building projects for clients like Vermont State Parks and a public school.
“The notion is to have kids meet with clients, plan, design and actually build things,” said Raphael. “So they have to go through any permit issues, they have to meet with clients, they have to order materials and they have to figure out: How is this sustainable? How is this the right way to build in the 21st century?”
Last Thursday, UVM students Wiley Conte, Dillon Irving and Robert Liu worked diligently through a light drizzle, as they finished up the Button Bay project. Under the protection of the picnic shelter, they cut, drilled and pieced together benches for the kayak platform.
Raphael and the students explained how the project was sustainable. The key, they said, was simplicity.
First, they didn’t use any concrete or cement for building.
“We just used direct burial with posts and basically just put gravel and stone at the base of the whole thing to provide necessary stability and allow the water to drain away quicker,” said Raphael.
Second, they sourced their wood materials from Vermont. The bulk of the wood used was untreated white cedar from the Northeast Kingdom, which contains resins that are naturally weather resistant, said Raphael. The rest of the wood was recycled.
As for special construction methods, the students all touted the benefits of basic carpentry, using circular saws, power drills and screws — nothing more. Conte said he previously didn’t know much about carpentry, but learned loads through the hands-on building projects. Irving said that while he had learned some construction before, he didn’t have a clue about design until he took Raphael’s class.
When asked about to evaluate the class, the three students were unequivocal: They loved it.
“The experience altogether was beneficial for me and all of us to work as a team to get a project done that was this constructive,” said Liu, a freshman.
Irving, a sophomore, also lauded the class for teambuilding benefits.
“It also helped learning to work as a team,” he chimed in. “It’s extremely hard to get everyone organized and here, and it’s awesome that we did accomplish that and designed and built a successful project.”
Conte was also enthusiastic.
“It was awesome,” said the sophomore. “It was one of my favorite classes ever.”
Up until now, the class has been offered on an experimental basis to test its efficacy. After two years of success, Raphael is confident that the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources will make it a permanent offering.
Through his new class, Raphael has watched students grow leaps and bounds, and he feels the lessons they learn via real-world projects are critical for the educational development of college students.
“They get to have a sense of what it’s like to work with a client and take a project from start to finish,” he said. “It allows them to conceive of something and actually see it through, and I think that’s big if you’re a college student.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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