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Grandview Elementary students dig the tool shed foundation in the school's community garden - photo by Chloe Lewis
Grandview Elementary students dig the tool shed foundation in the school's community garden - photo by Chloe Lewis

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 10 | Oct. 6, 2005

Not Your Ordinary Tool Shed

School cob shed project helps engineering student build world view

By Lorraine Chan

Sometimes real-life learning isn’t as neat and tidy as a planned curriculum, but the pay-off can be infinitely richer.

That’s what UBC engineering student Garth Howey discovered last year in his Learning Exchange Trek project to build a cob tool shed at Vancouver inner-city Grandview Elementary School. Cob is a traditional building material made from a mix of straw, sand, water and clay.

Between 2004 and 2005, Howey -- like 1,000 UBC students this academic year -- opted to include community-service learning as part of his university experience. Established in 1999, UBC’s Learning Exchange is the first initiative of its kind in Canada to help students translate their expertise into projects that benefit inner-city schools, community centres or non-profit organizations.

Howey and his peers consulted with Grandview students and teachers to come up with a project that would meet their engineering design course’s requirements and teach children math and science skills.

“The old shed in the school’s community garden was falling apart,” says Howey. “I thought it’d be neat to do something larger in scope and use cob since it’s cheap and energy efficient.”

He adds, “In England, cob buildings built 400 years ago are still standing.”

To his chagrin, Howey also realized that cob structures face a snarl of permit and zoning red tape, especially if they’re public or school board buildings. After running a gauntlet of seismic and engineering reviews, the tool shed is finally ready to go.

This month, with the help of 40 enthusiastic Grandview students, Howey is digging the foundation, shaping cobs the size of softballs and stacking them to build the structure.

“This isn’t part of class time, so essentially I’m volunteering. But we did promise to build it and I’m going to,” says Howey.

It was this attitude and resourcefulness that impressed Daan Maijer, Howey’s professor of Applied Science 330: Intermediate Engineering Design. Maijer gave the cob tool shed project an “A” based on the group’s effort, although construction was delayed past the end of term.

“Garth really drove this project and he got a lot out of this experience from interacting with people and taking on a management role,” says Maijer, noting, “Hands-on learning is much better than just classroom alone.”

Howey says he was able to grow in other ways beyond the academic and professional. “I suppose being at Grandview has made me a lot more empathetic. It’s a lot different over there than the kind of idealism we have about education here at UBC.”

Grandview’s community liaison officer Jen Harrison says that half of the 185 students are Aboriginal and 70 per cent of the students’ parents live at or below the poverty line. However, she says the school’s three-year partnership with UBC’s Learning Exchange has brought gifts to both sides.

“Our kids love having UBC students here,” says Harrison. “They bring so much energy and focus.

“Lots of the children don’t graduate from high school so this gives them a sense of what’s possible, that there’s a world outside the Commercial Drive area.”

Looking around at the vibrant murals and the palpable sense of loving care and pride that radiate from the school premises, Harrison concludes, “UBC projects leave their mark forever. And those university students also change their lives while they’re here. They learn what’s important.”

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Last reviewed 07-Jun-2008

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