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All Hands on Deck for Real-World Experience

SkillsUSA Massachusetts students save their community hundreds of thousands of dollars while earning invaluable real-world experience in their trade areas.
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Photo courtesy of Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School.

SkillsUSA students from Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School (AVRTHS) in Marlborough, Mass., devoted the entire last school year to a much-needed — and mutually beneficial — community service project: building a new headquarters for the water and sewer department of the Northborough Department of Public Works (DPW). It was the latest in a long line of projects that Wayne Coulson, carpentry instructor at AVRTHS, has taken on with his students over the last 30 years, projects that also incorporate students from a wide range of other construction-related trade areas in the school.

“Students in all programs at AVRTHS receive in-shop, hands-on training and related theory classes during their freshman and sophomore years to provide basic knowledge, trade terminology and skills,” Coulson says. In their junior and senior years, students then apply what they’ve learned to off-campus projects that expand their educational portfolios, an experience that, according to Coulson, is “an extension to the classroom and in-shop experience that’s vital in giving our junior and senior students a real-world understanding of the trades.”

Throughout the DPW project, Coulson’s students worked closely with other shop students and instructors from various trade areas, including carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing and painting and design. Collectively, the students also gained the invaluable experience of working alongside professional tradespeople, DPW team members and town-appointed inspection services.

“The term ‘win-win’ is a perfect description of this partnership between our school and the community,” says Coulson. “With the community funding the materials and supplies for construction projects, students are given the opportunity to work with materials and construction techniques that may otherwise not be possible. The final construction comes with a substantial savings to the community.”

DPW Director Scott Charpentier agrees, claiming that allowing students to take the lead on the project resulted in an estimated savings of $600,000. Charpentier plans to move all water and sewage operations into the new building, including computer and security stations, quick-response vehicles, the supervisor’s office and a shower. “It was a good interaction,” Charpentier says. “It saved the ratepayers, helped out Assabet Valley Tech and gave us what we needed.”

“I think this was a great move for the town of Northborough,” adds AVRTHS electrical wiring instructor Al Maino. “It was also a great move for us to be able to give these kids this type of experience.”

The benefit of this project was “huge,” Coulson says, adding that they couldn’t duplicate this work in a shop environment. “When you get out into an environment like this, it puts all of that [shop] knowledge to use, because it’s all real work. If we didn’t have this off-campus ability to do this for the community and the towns, our students I think would be missing out on some of that real-hands on experience.”

In June, the town held a thank-you lunch for the students to express gratitude for their help. “These types of collaborative projects are of great benefit to the town as well as the students,” says John Coderre, town administrator for Northborough. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Wayne Coulson on numerous projects over the years, and his team never fails to deliver a quality product. The students enjoy the hands-on learning experience, and our residents enjoy significant cost savings. We are grateful for the excellent relationship we have with Assabet Valley and look forward to our next joint venture.” 

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