Going Beyond the Textbook

Male working on electric saw

This blog post was originally published on Breaking Ground: the NCCER Blog, and was reposted with permission.


When I was hired as a plumbing instructor, I was told that one of my responsibilities at the Associated Builders and Contractors’ Southern California Chapter was to read and understand NCCER’s Core Curriculum and devise interesting and innovative ways to impart that information to students. When learning the Core Curriculum, students have to be evaluated on the proper use of hand and power tools, among others. Therefore, instructors have to evaluate students as they measure material to be cut, hammer a nail, screw in a screw and properly use a hand saw, nail gun and power saw. This was rather boring and tedious for both instructors and students, but for years this was how evaluations were done. Of course, the students voiced their inability to see the purpose of all of these separate activities.

Along came the “Do Nothing Box.” The “Do Nothing Box” is a basic wood box that students build while conducting their Performance Profiles for the Introduction to Hand Tools and Introduction to Power Tools modules. The box turns an otherwise boring evaluation into something more meaningful and tangible. By building a box, all of the required Performance Profile tasks were able to be evaluated and students had a way of creating something tangible that they could compare to their fellow students’ projects. As a result, competition increased among students to create the best boxes, and they gave each other helpful tips on how to make their boxes better.

Below are the steps that I currently use with the “Do Nothing Box”:

  1. Give students a drawing for the box two weeks before the lab.
  1. Have students write down all their measurements and create a material and tool list.
  1. Have students give their lists to their instructor (the foreman) and the instructor will write up a material and tool request to turn in to the tool crib manager (the purchasing agent). Students will have to think about material lead times as they create their requests.
  1. The process enables students to follow all the steps as they would on the job. Journeymen do not tell contractors to send them the materials they need to build with; they have to request a very detailed list of needed materials. This activity gives new apprentices an idea of how the process works in the field.
  1. On lab day, students are given everything that was on their list, and if they missed something they will see what they missed and have to make a special trip to the supply house where they must wait for their material order to be filled. Those students will see how they wasted time by not taking the time required to write a proper material and tool list.
  1. Students then construct the “Do Nothing Box” based on the dimensions provided to them. Students are given three hours to build the box in lab.

The goal and responsibility for each craft instructor is to ensure that his or her students learn as much as possible in a meaningful way. Yes, learning really can be fun.

For the rest of the story, read Art Sanchez’s Instructor Insight article in the online issue of NCCER’s Cornerstone magazine.