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Western Technical College Architectural Technology students from left to right: Tom Johnson, Samantha Dopson, Katie Griffing, Rebecca Bolton, Seamus Byrne, Jason Goin, Sarah Yehle and Adam Baker.

Every year, Wisconsin Technical College students from around the state gather in the State Capitol in Madison to showcase service learning projects within their community.

This year, however, Mother Nature had other plans.

On Feb. 20, a large ice storm encompassed the area, turning roadways into ice rinks across the state. As a result, the statewide showcase was cancelled.

While the cancellation was a bit of a letdown for many, including Peter Zirbel’s architectural technology class at Western Technical College, it doesn’t take away from what they have done within the community.

“It was disappointing, of course,” said Zirbel. “But, it doesn’t impact what our students have done.”

Since 2006, the class has collaborated with Habitat for Humanity-La Crosse Area to provide low-income families with homes of their own. Each year, Western students meet with Habitat for Humanity staff to find out the needs of the likely client family as well as details for the potential building sites.

For the students, the project not only acts as a service opportunity, but a chance to learn.

“For us, it’s just understanding how much goes into a design, because you don’t realize what goes into it,” said Katie Griffing, a student in the class. “When you get into the project, you realize there are so many other factors to consider that you don’t think about normally.”

“It’s a great experience for the students working for a real client on a real project that fulfills a real need,” said Zirbel. “The students are much more motivated and learn more than they would working on a project that I made up. It’s just a richer learning experience.”

Students use the information gathered from those meetings to develop construction documents, including floor plans, elevations, sections and framing plans for cost-effective, sustainable home designs for the client family.

“The biggest challenge is trying to make houses that are exciting, but very efficient,” added student Seamus Byrne. “We try to make the house have curb appeal, yet be a sustainable, affordable home for a family.”

In addition to learning more about the design process, the project helps students learn time management skills, using the latest equipment and working with a client.

“The best part is creating something, and then getting to see the final product,” said Griffing. “Just knowing all the work that we put into something pays off and seeing that person enjoying that space you created is worth it.”

While the class didn’t get the opportunity to show the project, the class realizes the good they’ve already done in the community.

“It’s nice to know that I can be behind the scenes and know that people one day live in a house that I’ve designed,” said Byrne. “It’s amazing to work on a project and know the little changes you make on a project will have a big difference for a deserving family.”

The Wisconsin Technical College System Student Showcase is an annual event designed to increase awareness of the many ways Wisconsin’s technical college students give back to their community. To learn more about the event, head to http://www.wtcsystem.edu/initiatives-events/wtcs-student-showcase.

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