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Meaningful Math

Local high schoolers tackle geometry while building community.

It’s THE LAST WEEK of the 2016-17 school year at Poudre High School, and students in Geometry in Construction flood the parking lot outside their classroom. They line up in front of the pale yellow house they had worked on since September, posing for a picture with its owner-to-be Kirsten Bolten and her daughter. Bolten smiles with gratitude and affection. The PHS teens built this house and, now that it’s complete, it’s their gift to her.

This is the fourth home the Geometry in Construction class has built and donated. The class was originally inspired by a course teacher Steve Sayers co-taught in Loveland, but when Sayers brought the class to PHS four years ago, he made a fundamental change to the curriculum. Instead of building houses to sell for profit as students do in similar programs, he wanted to build houses for people in need. He soon found a partner in Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit that helps people purchase homes through no-interest mortgages and sweat equity.

Sayers and fellow PHS teachers Nathan Savig and Richard Markey now guide more than 80 students per year through the process of using geometry to solve construction challenges. The year-long course gives the numbers a real-life application, provides students with practical skills and fosters teamwork. Rather than finding the area of a square, students calculate the area of a roof and the cost of shingles. Then they don hard hats and tool belts and, together, build a house that will change somebody’s life.

Students enroll in the class for a variety of reasons—they might be math rock stars looking for a fun application or they may hope that real-life problem solving will make a difficult subject click. They also bring a range of experiences and talents that are well-suited to the course’s group dynamics. A student who leads the class in math might have to learn to follow on the job site or vise versa. “This class is all about teamwork and cooperation,” says sophmore Alex Lopez.

But the gift of building a house for someone, of improving his or her life, is what gives Geometry in Construction its heart. It doesn’t matter why or how they come to the class—the goal is for students to “walk out of here with math skills, construction skills and a sense of community,” Sayers says.

PHS student Morgan Kline joined Geometry in Construction mid-year, after transferring from Wyoming. “I was totally surprised students were building a house,” Kline says. “I didn’t know how to use a hammer. [This class] made me feel like I can do something for someone else without getting something out of it.”

Each year the students write letters to the homebuyers and sign notes inside the wall, sharing what the experience has meant to them. In the past, Habitat selected its buyer early in the course, giving students ample time to know and connect with the family. That relationship serves as a motivator when work is especially hard or weather particularly miserable. It makes the service component of the class concrete and the work more meaningful.

“I already knew how to build,” says sophomore David Peña, “but the takeaway was building for someone.”

Unlike previous years, the 2016-2017 class didn’t meet Bolten and her daughter until May, just weeks before Habitat would transport the house to its new lot. Sayers, Savig and Markey wondered if the students would still walk away with a sense of service, or if they’d be missing out. They needn’t have worried.

As Bolten stands before the class to tell her story, the students fall still and silent. “You’ve created a house for two people to live in,” she explains. “I wanted to see the faces of the people who, without knowing me, contributed.”

Her tale is pretty typical for a Habitat homebuyer. A Spanish teacher and an “only parent,” she has a good job but has simply been priced out of the city’s inflating housing market. After qualifying, she waited nine months for a Habitat home to become available.

As Bolten wraps up her thank you speech to the students, she blinks back tears. “My middle name is Faith, but I always was like, ‘what’s faith?’ I don’t think I have faith. I question everything. But then, whatever God is, God told me something in my heart: Faith is knowing inside of you what’s right, and doing the work every day, and not knowing the outcome,” she says. “It’s building a house without knowing who’s gonna live in it.”

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