NESS CITY - On the rural plains in Ness County, Devin Brown's big dreams of being an electrician someday are beginning in a tiny house.
The Ness City High School senior worked on a blustery January day, inside the little RV-sized structure that sits outside the school's shop. The framed home is far from done, but he envisions the end project − complete with a big-screen television, two lofts, a full-sized shower and even a spiral staircase.
Moreover, the work goes beyond class time. He and fellow students have put countless hours in after school and on weekends in an effort to get their project done by April 1 so they can take it to a science fair in Hays.
"One Sunday, we worked six hours," he said of the day they put up walls in the rain. "It's not just work. When you get in the rhythm of doing something, you just have fun."
Those are words that USD 303 Superintendent Derek Reinhardt wants to hear. He and his administration's efforts, after all, go beyond the "tiny home" craze that is sweeping America - a movement to declutter and live more simply.
There was a time when shop classes in schools across the nation weren't a big part of the curriculum. While in some schools students learned to use tools by building furniture and other small projects, in others, the classes were phased out.
Educators pushed their students toward four-year degrees, said Reinhardt.
"While that is great for some kids, it is not for every kid," he said. "We've got to get back to where education used to be - offering opportunities not just for kids going that traditional college route but also the kids going the technical route."
Ness City - a county seat town of 1,440 people - sits on the edge of western Kansas' High Plains. The school district has about 150 students - making it a small 2A, in Kansas standards.
But being in a remote area doesn't faze Reinhardt and his teachers, who are implementing innovative ideas to give students the best learning opportunities.
That includes in the school's shop.
With Reinhardt's support, industrial education teacher Brent Kerr is embracing project-learning concepts. Last year, with the brainstorming of ESSDACK's Kevin Honeycutt, of Inman, one of Kerr's classes designed and built a "GOdium" - a suitcase that can store a traveling speaker's equipment and other items, then turn into a podium.
Honeycutt travels around the world for his educational consulting job and thought Kerr's entrepreneur class could create and sell the product he dreamed up. He wanted something he could carry to the airport but would turn into a podium on stage so he can play his guitar, said Kerr.
"There is a huge push for problem- or project-based learning," Kerr said. "You have to relate things to the real world."
Kerr had that in mind at the start of the year with his construction class. He wrote several projects on the board that he knew his students wouldn't want to do.
"In the past, we have built yard sheds, fixed this and fixed that. We worked on our historic bank building," he said.
However, he said, this year, "They decided they wanted a bigger challenge: They brainstormed until they came up with the tiny house."
They considered a home, but the area's housing market is poor, said Devin. Most of the students had watched the tiny-house reality shows on television.
"Why not build something that not a lot of schools get a chance to do," Devin said. "We figured it would be easier to build something you can send wherever you want to, with the whole United States as your market."
Kerr's two construction classes, which involves about a dozen students, researched the dimensions and came up with a budget. In September, they went to the school board and asked for $20,000 to build the house, Reinhardt said.
With approval, they got to work. The AutoCAD class designed a trailer. Meanwhile, students learned that there is one company that certifies tiny homes and they have been in contact with the company to follow the certification steps.
In the fall, the classes toured Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in Colorado, the largest manufacturer of tiny-house RVs in North America. The class also stopped at IKEA for interior ideas, Devin said.
The house is framed. Most of the windows are installed, and the electrical is nearly done. In coming weeks, they will install insulation and start work on interior projects, such as cabinets and the bathroom.
The students have worked hard to meet their deadlines, Kerr said.
"There are a lot of times I have to kick three or four kids out of here because my wife wants me to come home for supper," he said.
Reinhardt said the students probably will go over budget by $5,000 to $7,000. He added that was part of the learning process: The students didn't budget for overage.
Still, he said, the plan is to list the home by private treaty for $59,900. The revenue will go back into the school's capital outlay fund, but he said he hopes to be able to pay the students a small contractor fee for their work.
With the GOdium, the school was able to pay the students involved around $300 each for developing the concept, a project high school students are still marketing and manufacturing.
The classes plan to market the home across the country, especially in areas where tiny homes are more popular.
"They already did research; they can market it anywhere," Reinhardt said. "They can make it along the front range of Colorado; they are going to market it in California, where a lot of things sell. Because it is on wheels, they can take it anywhere."
They also are making the home more personal - creating a book of the home's development.
"I think the people who want to own something like this will want this story to go along with it," said Kerr.
Students are excited
Kerr said other classes have had an impact on the project. For instance, an agriculture class made the trailer. The art class is going to help stage the home, which could include paintings for the walls and making curtains. A special education class is working on the photo book and the English teacher is helping with Kerr's blog.
Moreover, Kerr's kids are learning life skills.
"It's about quality and doing the job right," Reinhardt said. "Whether it is a project like this, or an English paper or math project, we want to reiterate the point that it is done and it is done well."
The kids are buying into it, he added.
"If nothing else, the do-it-yourself mentality that is going around this is a great opportunity for kids to walk out of high school to have some of the skills they need to save money in their own homes," said Reinhardt.
"Every one of these kids should be able to wire an outlet," Kerr added.
Sophomore Tiana Epperson said she wanted to take the construction class because some of her family members do remodeling work.
And Logan Schlegel, a senior, said the tiny house has helped him decide on a major: carpentry. Along with Devin, the two will enroll at North Central Kansas Technical College in Hays next year.
"It made me for sure know this is what I want to do," Logan said. "This has been fun just watching the project go on and know you are doing the work."
The tiny house also has paved the way for Devin's career as an electrician.
"I knew I wanted to do something hands-on," he said. "I'm not the kind of guy who can sit behind the desk.
"It's been a blast working on," Devin added. "It is good times with good friends."
The school system needs more projects like this, said Reinhardt. He sees students who, in the past, haven't been excited about textbook learning get passionate and excited about their classes.
"A lot of kids are going into fields like this," he said. "What better way for them to experience it."