The Sandbox: An Engaging New Construction Classroom Experience

The Sandbox: An Engaging New Construction Classroom Experience

If I could have spent my high school years learning in an outdoor construction lab called “the sandbox,” I might have chosen an entirely different career path.

And that’s exactly the point, according to the group of local partnering organizations that worked together to make such a learning environment possible. The new civil construction program, set to start in Porter County next autumn, is all about building engagement and excitement through a new, hands-on educational experience that will be guided by construction industry partners.

A whole range of workforce, academic, and industry stakeholders worked together to bring this program to life. This included input from employers like Superior Construction and Grimmer Construction, industry advocates like the Construction Advancement Foundation (CAF) and Indiana Constructors, Inc., workforce development organizations like the Center of Workforce Innovations (CWI) and the Porter County Career Center, as well as local high schools.

It was truly a collaborative effort, and one that received overwhelming support from educators and local school administrators. Officials are saying this new program will be a great way for companies to bring in new talent and raise awareness about all the industry has to offer.


A Whole New Kind of Classroom

The Porter County Career Center will introduce civil construction into its curriculum during the autumn 2024 semester. The program’s curriculum and lab activities are designed to provide students with education in the field of civil construction, a subject that few high school construction programs traditionally cover. Classes will include lots of different activities, like asphalt and concrete paving, bridges, construction inspection, erosion control, flagging, formwork, heavy equipment operation, safety, soils, surveying, and more. Any students from across Porter County can register.

What truly sets this program apart is the creation of an outdoor classroom referred to as the “sandbox.” In this innovative learning environment, students will have the opportunity to operate heavy machinery, work with surveying equipment, build concrete forms, and even pour concrete. They’ll also be able to learn about things like materials testing, jobsite layouts, and the various soil properties that impact construction.

The classroom portions of this program will be housed at Chesterton Middle School Campus and the “sandbox” portion will be held on the Duneland School Property. The heavy equipment is being sponsored by Westside Equipment, and smaller tools and surveying equipment will be donated by local contractors and trade unions – several of which have committed to actively participating in the educational aspect of the program. They have offered their expertise to help educate and train both the students and provide valuable guidance to the instructors.

Indiana Constructors Director of Talent Development Eric Fisher helped to initiate the first civil construction program in Indiana, which exists in the central region of the state. Porter County’s new program is modeled after this example but will feature several modifications unique to our region’s industry needs.

Fisher said the best parts about this type of curriculum are all the vital conversations and connections that can result.

“The civil construction pathway will introduce students to a new industry of construction that most high school programs don’t include. It’s really getting the students excited and engaged. When a school hosts a ‘sandbox’ event, the students are going to be very excited and focused on operating the equipment – which is a first for many of them. An unintended benefit from that are the conversations that happen between talent acquisition, contractors, parents, teachers, and administrators. It’s such a positive benefit of hosting these outdoor learning events,” Fisher said.


Tremendous Value

In talking with each of the individuals that helped to create this program in Northwest Indiana, it’s clear that everyone sees tremendous value and potential.

This initiative began through conversations between CAF Director of Professional Development Kevin Comerford, and regional contractors including Superior Construction Midwest President Dan Sopczak, and Grimmer Construction Project Manager Dan Harrington.

They recognized the need for more skilled professionals in this particular niche of the industry, so Comerford took these conversations to groups like the CWI and the Porter County Career Center to coordinate outreach efforts and presentations for area school officials. The end result could be a whole new talent pipeline for regional firms.

“This initiative is a vital avenue for developing the next generation of skilled professionals in the construction industry. Introducing the civil construction program is a crucial step in exposing our youth to rewarding careers in building our nation’s infrastructure. With billions earmarked for our state’s infrastructure, this initiative addresses concerns of civil construction employers by preparing students for high-paying opportunities and fostering a well-trained talent pipeline. It directly meets industry demands, ensuring sustainable growth amid our growing investments in infrastructure,” said Comerford.

Sopczak said, “There is a high demand for construction professionals including both skilled craftspeople and management personnel. This program will help increase awareness by exposing students to the various careers and job opportunities that are available in the civil construction industry.”

“I can tell you that this truly is an exceptional opportunity for the students in Northwest Indiana,” said Harrington. “Portage and Duneland are going to be at the forefront of this exceptional movement for their students.”

“Indiana is strongly committed to improving and keeping up with infrastructure in our state, and our industry is committed to making these goals a reality. In order to meet and exceed these goals, we need to be planning ahead, and this program is key in accomplishing that task,” Harrington added.


Students and Employers will Benefit

Organizations like the CWI and the Porter County Career Center make it their mission to connect individuals with promising career paths. The new civil construction program represents a huge win in that regard, for both students and employers.

“In our area, this pathway will be a lucrative and fulfilling career opportunity for our students. Not all students want to go to a four-year college, so this pathway offers an opportunity for employment right after high school, or the choice to advance the experience with a two- or four-year degree,” said CWI Director of the Regional Educator and Employer Alliance for Developing Youth-READY NWI Amy Burke.

“A career in civil construction offers job security and a rewarding future while also providing many area employers with a pipeline of much needed talent to support our streets, roads, highways, and bridges infrastructure that is so vital to our economy,” Burke said.

CWI Strategic Innovation Officer Kathy Neary added, “We are very excited about the incredible support in the mix with the trades and employers like Superior and Grimmer Construction.”

Porter County Career Center Director of Career and Technical Education Audra Peterson played a pivotal role in getting this curriculum approved through local school systems. She said she’s never seen such strong support for the launch of a new start-up program.

We have had overwhelming support from key business partners in Northwest Indiana,” Peterson said. “There is such a demand for personnel in all aspects of the civil construction industry, and with the federal and state commitments for infrastructure funding there is going to be long-term demand. This will be a valuable addition to our already growing list of opportunities for Porter County career and technical education and I am really excited about the opportunity to bring this program to Northwest Indiana.”


Transformative Step

By providing a unique learning environment and fostering collaboration between industry partners and educators, the new civil construction program in Porter County marks a transformative step in addressing the demand for skilled professionals in the civil construction sector. There’s no doubt that students will be engaged by all the activities they’ll get to learn in the “sandbox,” and employers will be afforded a direct role in shaping their future talent. All of this is likely going to add up to great opportunities for both companies and their future employees once the program gets started later this year.

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