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Campus construction instruction

Turning campus building sites into student learning labs
University Business, September 2018
  • SITE PLANNING—Construction management students at Northern Michigan U worked on new campus residence halls (shown) and a hotel in downtown Marquette. During site tours and meetings, students could review blueprints and other project documents.
  • LAYING THE GROUNDWORK—During construction of Hampshire College’s Kern Center, three faculty launched a series of integrated sciences courses. Students collaborated in using the building design for applied learning projects involving microbiology, hydrology and mathematical modeling.
  • MISSION COMPLETE—Purdue U student Alison Maslar-Donar, who served as a communications liaison during construction of this honors college building, eventually lived and studied in the completed building her senior year.
  • MISSION COMPLETE—An intern at Prince George’s Community College helped ensure subcontractors stayed on track during the construction of Lanham Hall.

Hampshire College students used math, microbiology and hydrology classes to test the quality of the water going in and out of the wetlands constructed as a part of a building project at the western Massachusetts campus.

A Purdue University intern blogged, tweeted and emailed to apprise the Indiana campus’ community of the progress on a new honors college building—gaining insight she wouldn’t have received through a typical construction internship.

Interns at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland solved problems, ran project meetings and helped supervise subcontractors.

Rather than block access to campus construction sites, some colleges and universities approach them as living laboratories. Institutions with construction management, architecture and engineering programs have long used local construction sites for student internships and site visits.


SIDEBAR: Administrator punch list


Increasingly, facilities leaders and faculty are forging partnerships with architectural firms and construction companies to give students from nearly every academic discipline real-world experience—and a safe environment to make mistakes and learn.

But it’s still catching on. “We estimate that less than 10 percent of all capital projects on college and university campuses are used as learning labs,” says Michael D. Moss, president of the Society for College and University Planning.

Following are answers to five key questions for higher ed leaders to consider in setting up construction site instruction opportunities.

1. What do these experiences look like?

Because facilities projects begin long before groundbreaking, student involvement often includes both on- and off-site learning, with group activities such as site tours and construction process problem-solving.

Construction management seniors at Ball State University in Indiana used the site of the Dr. Don Shondell Practice Center, a volleyball and basketball facility, for their capstone projects in 2018. 

Messer Construction Co., a firm with 10 locations in the Midwest and Southeast, allowed three building visits during off hours, giving students a chance to replicate the work performed in an actual construction project.


SIDEBAR: Campus construction: Student involvement compared


In a mock project, groups of four students solicited bids and put together a mock construction team and 3D construction models that were compared to the actual ones.

Ryan Odle, senior project manager and the site leader for Messer, and other members of the construction management team answered questions.

“The teachers took what we had and applied it to their classrooms, taking liberties to make adjustments and create obstacles for the students to solve,” Steinert says.

When construction crews encountered underground problems on the job site, Messer shared the challenge with the professor, giving students a chance to work through a real-life scenario.

At Prince George’s Community College, paid interns have played an important role at three campus facilities. Henry Dickson, director of planning, design and construction, launched the internship program with three construction companies.

One intern, a theater major with an interest in building design, worked 20 hours per week with Forrester Construction of Rockville, Maryland, on the renovation and expansion of Lanham Hall, a classroom, office and student support building.

The intern tracked the subcontractors’ daily progress and notified managers if a crew fell behind, says Dickson.

Another student, attending college part time, served as an intern on an a culinary arts center construction project for two years before the construction firm, Coakley Williams Construction, hired her, Dickson says.

She now works 25 hours per week there, running project meetings and schedules, as well as supervising subcontractors. She plans to study architecture at the University of Maryland after earning her associate degree in general studies next year.

“It’s been a great experience, especially having younger people try to delegate or direct folks who may be older or may be of a different background,” says Dickson. “That’s part of life.”

Dickson plans to provide internships for all future campus construction projects—but suggests other administrators involve the career services office from the start to ensure that internships result in academic credits and get recorded on student transcripts.

2. How do students benefit from construction site learning?

Construction projects allow students to learn a host of soft skills, even from the planning stages.

Wesley Evans, a 2016 graduate of Hampshire College, served as one of two students on the planning and construction committee for the highly sustainable R. W. Kern Center, now a certified “living building.”

Learning to lead people, building budgets and navigating problems has directly influenced his leadership and project management style at the messaging app Snapchat, where he is a product manager, he says.

At Hampshire, he ensured the project team heard student views about the location of and uses for the building.

“There were a couple of times where we got involved in real hot issues. We wouldn’t back down,” says Evans, referring, in part, to students’ strong feelings about the building including a barrier-free design for individuals with disabilities.

In his fourth year, Evans served as an orientation leader for new students in an interdisciplinary course taught by a math professor. The modeling systems class conducted mathematical modeling of the building’s planned biomechanical systems.

Professors of microbiology, math and hydrology partnered to help first-year students adjust to Hampshire’s self-directed learning model, says Sarah Hews, associate professor of mathematics.

Students come to Hampshire wanting to solve big problems, such as world hunger and climate change. Providing learning opportunities through campus construction allowed faculty and students to move from having big ideas to answering scientific questions, she adds.

Specifically, the professors from the three disciplines brought their classes together weekly to conduct experiments, such as testing water quality and microbial activity, for the wetlands/building project, according to Hews.

Even though not all the students were math or science majors, they learned to construct a mathematical model of the nitrogen cycle and anaerobic and aerobic activity in a tub of soil collected from the constructed wetlands.

“They’re doing modeling work I hadn’t done until graduate school,” she adds.

At Purdue, Alison Maslar-Donar, an honors college student and civil engineering major, spent nearly two years as a communication liaison intern between the construction team and the campus community for an honors college building project completed during her junior year.

While keeping students and staff up to date on detours and disruptions, she led tours, held meetings, blogged and tweeted. She even asked a friend who was taking flying lessons to snap some aerial photos.

The project’s accelerated 18-month construction schedule meant crews worked irregular hours, heightening the need for frequent communication.

Although Maslar-Donar was the only student involved so heavily in the project, she arranged focus groups with future residents so they could share ideas for the facility. Some ideas, such as carpet choice, got incorporated into the final design.

“I really learned through the process to focus on the end user of the building,” says Maslar-Donar, now a project engineer at a construction company.

While interning, she was paid by the university, but she reported to a project manager at Purdue and a supervisor at Messer, the construction company.

“Having the peer-to-peer communication, we felt, was valuable, too,” says Drew Furry, senior project manager for Purdue. “The idea caught fire with our academic folks.”

3. What can be done to minimize risk to the institution?

Construction site activity—with constantly moving vehicles and equipment lifting heavy loads on uneven terrain—requires constant vigilance to maintain worker and visitor safety. That’s why administrators recommend hiring contractors who are willing and able to provide training and establish safety protocols.

At the start of any course involving site tours, a representative from Northern Michigan University’s construction management firm, Detroit-based Walbridge, visits Construction Management Professor Heidi Blanck’s class to discuss safety.

The training includes reviewing basic requirements such as wearing closed-toed shoes, safety glasses, hard hats and safety vests. In addition, students sign a poster that reads: “If it’s not safe, I won’t do it and I won’t let others do it.”

In instances of forgotten safety glasses, the construction company provides them—but if students show up in sandals or shorts, they’re barred from the construction site.

Training also covers what’s expected of anyone in a construction zone. Cellphone use is banned and everyone must have a “360-degree awareness” of what’s happening above and around them, must know site evacuation plans and must stay within permitted areas.

If an intern were to get injured, the insurance carrier of whomever employs the student—the institution or outside contractor—would be liable, says Steinert from Messer. If not employed—say, a student on a tour—responsibility depends on the situation.

4. What costs are involved?

Contractors who embrace the living laboratory concept typically do not charge extra for staff time dedicated to supervising interns, teaching classes or coordinating with faculty for student visits. They look at such efforts as a chance to educate the next generation. It also gives them a pipeline to potential hires.

At Hampshire, Bruner/Cott Architects committed to collaborating closely with students and faculty on the Kern Center project, from planning to completion, says Jason J. Jewhurst, a principal with the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm. Educating students is embedded in the firm’s goals.

“The buildings are not mine. The buildings are theirs,” says Jewhurst, who encourages student involvement in the campus construction process.

“It does take more time,” he says, but his firm takes into account that it’s already being compensated for completion of the project. The firm’s staff scheduled tours on days when they planned to be on campus anyway, he adds.

5. What steps are involved in establishing construction site learning labs?

When selecting outside companies that embrace teaching, formalizing that expectation can be a good idea. At Prince George’s Community College, Dickson made the hiring of at least one intern a condition for each contract.

And once Purdue had narrowed down potential construction companies to a few finalists, Messer Construction’s decision to devote 10 minutes of its 60-minute presentation to a video showing one of its interns on another university’s project tipped the scales in its favor, Furry says.

Involving students in the planning process, collaborating with faculty to design instruction around site tours and creating opportunities across disciplines are other key steps.

This trend appeals to today’s students and the way they approach their education.

“When you engage students in a process of learning in a building, it develops skills that students really need and causes students to think differently,” says Hews, the math professor at Hampshire. “Students want to do something substantial. They need it connected to their lives.”


Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Connecticut-based writer.