This article was written by guest-author Travis Duckworth, director of the Sol Learning Institute based Nevada City, CA. 

Relevant Education – Empowering Our Community With Skills In Sustainability

sustainabilityA plaster hello from Nadine*
*these pictures are from our 2020-2021 school year so students will often be seen wearing masks to adhere to California regulations to continue operating an in-person Outdoor School during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The time for incremental change is no longer an option and the most powerful shifts we, as a community, can offer occur right here, right now. In an effort to address big issues at a local level, I launched the Sol Learning Institute in 2020. The goal is to empower ourselves with applicable skills in sustainable architecture, agriculture, and economics. Here, students come to learn how to build, and power, their own homes, grow their own food, and start their own businesses while supporting local infrastructure.

It is an honor to be able to offer such opportunities and to be asked to share some of those here in this newsletter. Below you will find a short description of our current programming and plans for the future. I hope it will inspire you to join in the conversation of finding and implementing real solutions here in Nevada County!



solarOur flagship program is geared towards young adults, ages 15-25, and combines a big, umbrella picture of sustainable skill development paired with some elements of workforce development. We run this program roughly in-step with local school districts from September through May. To give an overview of what we do, I thought I would include a list of last year’s activities. Meeting, 2x/week for 15 weeks each semester, it’s challenging to conceptualize that these powerful “kids” did all of this in 60 days!



Here goes:

Built a strawbale GOAT BARN

  • Constructed doors from scratch
  • Blacksmithed hardware for said doors
  • Gable metal roof using salvaged lumber
  • Yaki sugi (or shou sugi ban) burning as a preservation technique
  • Rubble trench and earthbag foundation
  • Earthen plaster

Built a timber framed CHICKEN COOP

  • Framed with local fallen cedar logs, peeled with draw knives
  • Pallet, wattle and daub, cordwood, and light clay straw walls
  • Natural preconditioners and sealers on wood trim
  • Built doors and blacksmithed hardware
  • Reciprocal roof



  • Conventional framing
  • Simple solar electrical installation
  • Living roof planted with native wildflowers
  • Rainwater catchment system to feed to foot pump sink




  • Earthbag base
  • Natural rock and mortar finish
  • Mosaic tile countertop
  • Earthen and lime plaster finish
  • Plaster pigments (integrated and fresco)
  • Oven bricks from scratch (sand and clay)



  • Ricotta
  • Sourdough pizzas
  • Pancakes
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Fermented hot sauce
  • Preserved lemons
  • Garam masala
  • Chicken/Seitan tikka masala
  • Vegetable stir fry
  • Goat cheese


  • Chapstick
  • Deodorant
  • Blacksmithed spoons, knives, latches, handles, hooks
  • Clay pinch pots
  • Ceramic slab projects
  • Clay whistles
  • Tile mosaics
  • Baskets (from raffia they dyed)
  • Notebooks (bound by hand)
  • Indigo dyed fabrics
  • Screen printed shirts (w/ student design)
  • Glass bottle bricks
  • Leatherwork


  • Black soldier flies
  • Red wiggler worms
  • Bokashi
  • Berkeley hot composting
  • Micro/soil biology workshop
  • Various mulching applications
  • Blueberry protection and fertilization
  • Transplanted lots and lots of plants
  • Germinated lots and lots of seed starts
  • Built cold frames
  • Milked goats
  • Planted a fruit orchard
  • Planted tomatoes



  • Methane biodigester
  • Biodiesel
  • Learned about solar systems and applications
  • Soldered solar cells to make their own PV modules

Participated in a local CONTROLLED BURN

…and I’m probably forgetting a few things, but here’s a cute picture!

Baby Goats!

Baby Goats!


Our current programming focus is aimed at helping to address affordable housing in our community. Many of our young students and families that are renting are facing the very real prospect of not being able to afford to stay in the community they grew up in, our homeless population is growing, and we have a very real need for fire evacuation shelter options. To help contribute to the conversation surrounding these issues, we have launched a Community Tiny House Build Series and are creating an all encompassing Tiny House Build Kit and Instructional Video Course


Community Tiny House Build Series:
Adult students will be constructing 2 tiny houses from scratch over a 6 month series in collaboration with local contractors, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and teachers. This will empower them with entry-level skills to build most residential structures that they can transfer to building their own tiny houses, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), workshops, or simply to remodel and maintain their own homes. Throughout the build, we will be inviting City Council members and our Board of Supervisors to visit and have real discussions around how we as a community will address our affordable housing crisis. I hope you all will follow or join us for this exciting endeavor.

sustainable energy solar

It’s going to be fun!

Tiny House Build Kit and Instructional Video Course:
We are simultaneously starting to take orders for entire build kits and an accompanying instructional course for a simple and functional tiny house that would include everything needed for construction, from basic framing through electrical and plumbing and on to finish cabinets and appliances. While this is definitely not an IKEA and allen wrench project, it is quite approachable and incredibly empowering. 

Our goal is to employ local youth in the assembly and packaging of build kits that can then be used by individuals and organizations looking to put a roof over someone’s head without purchasing new from a manufacturer. Much like Habitat for Humanity, I envision families, church groups, schools, or community non-profits coming together to be part of providing solutions and advocating for low cost opportunities to meet the needs of our most vulnerable populations, particularly with regards to permitting and zoning. There is movement happening both in California and nationally and I’m excited to see how Nevada County meets the challenge.


This is the point that most schools would say to “stay tuned” for upcoming workshops and calendar updates and please do, but I want to end by turning it back to the community. 

What do you want to learn? 

What issues do you want to collaborate on to shift us towards solution-oriented discussions? 

Much of what we face locally, nationally, and globally is quite daunting and can easily become paralyzing. I believe that we can come together locally to begin creating opportunities and exploring ways to make an impact and in doing so have a ripple effect that will have lasting and monumental change, please be a part of it. 

As always, thank you for taking the time to read through this and for supporting Relevant Education in the foothills. If you have any questions, ideas, or would like to have a conversation, please do reach out! 

sol learning institute


Please do reach out: