Rory Vail Has the Floor

Ankeny High instructor asked to share secret sauce for fielding most finalists

Rory Vail Has the Floor

Many area high schools tout their winning records for sports, but Ankeny High School can also tout their outstanding performance in Affordable Housing Week's Design Challenge. Ankeny High students have consistently been top five finalists for this annual competition sponsored by Polk County Housing Trust Fund. Last year's winner, Christine Orlanes, an Ankeny student now attending Iowa State University, gives a lot of the credit to teacher Rory Vail, who provides an environment for students to do their best work.

We talked with Vail to learn more about him, the secret ingredient to his students' success and why he believes all area schools would benefit from competing in the Design Challenge for Affordable Housing, a competition that gives students a new perspective on the housing needs of people in their community.

Q: Share a little about yourself.

A: I've been a teacher for 25 years and am in my seventh year of teaching in the career and technical department in Ankeny for 10th-12th grade students. Before that I was the director of education at Lincoln Technical in West Des Moines, but I haven't always been a teacher. I am a U.S. Army Vietnam Veteran and worked as an automotive retail manager. While I thoroughly enjoyed the sales industry and related success, I didn't like the travel. That's when I decided to put my bachelor's and master's degrees from Colorado State University to work. No doubt, the real world experience has been helpful in the classroom.

Q: What is an example of a real life lesson you incorporate?

A: Providing deadlines, but then issuing a "change order" if circumstances warrant. They will have supervisors and situations where they will need to be both responsible for hitting targets and deadlines, but also be flexible when things change. I also challenge the students to think beyond the paper. Of great value, especially in the career and technical education, is to ask, "Do I like this? Can I make money doing this?"

I also make a case for doing things they don't like. I say, "Isn't it great to know now, while you're in high school, rather than after investing the time and money in training or college?" That's why I believe there's no such thing as a bad job shadow. Having a series of experiences helps students know what they don't want to do and start defining or developing ideas on what they do want to do.

Q: Why did you choose to have your students compete in the Design Challenge?

A: It was a simple decision. This is an opportunity to be part of a real world exercise focused on a real need and challenge. While the classroom work of doing calculations, creating a plan and doing the design work is important, I believe the greater value comes through their interaction with the professionals. Partway through the process, architects from ASK Studio come to the class and have one-on-one desk reviews with every student. They provide feedback, challenge the students' thought processes and bring the style and standards that help raise the students' game.

For those who make the finals, I really stress the fact that if they don't win the competition, they can still win in a different way by using this as a networking opportunity. Down the road, they may need an internship. Many of the people in the room as judges or supporting organizations are the people who have the ability to provide internships and introduce them to opportunities.

Another critically important part is that the students are receiving feedback. Not criticism. It's all about interacting in a different way.

Q: I thought it was interesting that your finalist the first year was a female and last year's winner, again from Ankeny, was a female. I think of tech classes and the industry of architecture as being predominantly male.

A: I believe it is important all students who want to have an experience or learn more about a trade feel confident in doing that. This really hits home for me, because I have a daughter who is an engineer and I know there are things she has had to work to overcome.

Both years where the professionals come in for desk reviews, there have been female architects present. When these professionals come in, it shows the industry for what it is and the students can see themselves as part of that future.

Q: Your students have been incredibly successful - why?

A: While we focus on the design and following the rules related to square footage, cost, etc., I emphasize the design has to be filled with solutions. The competition provides the storyline of a family - from their ages to hobbies to special needs and even a real site that some drove by and we looked up in class on Google maps. The students have great discussions about what is needed, what will or won't work and they draw on observations such as what their own uncle or grandma or neighbor would need. Again, it's about designing features to solve problems.

Q: And the presentations?

A: A thoughtful, well-designed home is only part of the process. I tell them that, at the end of the day, it is only as good as their ability to represent their thinking. That is why everyone, whether they are a finalist or not, gives their presentation before the class and the students ask questions and provide feedback. Through this process, they are not only making their classmates better, they are making themselves better. And anyone who is selected to be a finalist is ready for the pressure of presenting to a panel of judges and explaining the choices they made.

Q: How easy or difficult has this been to incorporate into your class schedule?

A: I don't see this as an additional project, so it's not additional work. It's integrated into the curriculum and provides a way for our students to be part of something real, something important, something bigger than an assignment. They do it for the experience and showing their talent in a tangible way. For the finalists, it's like being selected for a professional sports team. It's competitive and you're recognized on a larger competitive field for being among the best.

Every school that participates is providing a real life experience for their students on an issue that impacts our communities and every part of our lives. It's a lesson they won't forget.