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Learning from the Ground Up

Collaboration brings staff, faculty and students together for facility growth.
University Business, Aug 2006

Bringing real-world job experience into higher education has always been a challenge. This is particularly true for professional programs such as architecture, engineering, construction, and urban design. For colleges and universities, striking the right balance between academics and vocational experience is often a difficult task.

Some professional programs and majors, which need a high degree of specialized training and experience, don't always offer as much hands-on learning as the students need. In fact, a frequent criticism from college or university graduates is that there is a lack of understanding about what it is like to work in the fields in which they have been trained and educated.

Work internships are one way to gain experience in a professional field such as architecture or engineering. Some schools offer this as part of their programs; more often, however, it is up to the students to obtain such positions on their own or away from school--and the quality can fluctuate substantially in what kind of experience they give to the interns. As a result, colleges and universities are continually looking for ways to bring more experience and understanding into the classroom, particular in these professional fields.

Or, in some cases, bring the classroom to the real world.

When colleges and universities reach out and bring the real world into their classes--or even the classes into the real world--the benefits are tangible for both the students and schools.

Some schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, offer an increasing number of cross-disciplinary courses and programs that bring different practices together, creating the environments students will find when they graduate. And other schools, like Tufts University (Mass.) and Rice University (Texas), are also bringing the students out into the settings where they will actually be working and introducing them to their professions firsthand.

Indeed, Tufts University has taken the collaborative approach one step beyond by integrating existing campus building projects into a class for engineering students. While several buildings are under construction, they are also serving as classrooms for students in the new Engineering and the Construction Process class taught by Chris Swan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

In this class, 12 undergraduate students get to see construction upfront on two new buildings on the Tufts campus--a new music building and a new dormitory. The course is co-instructed by Linbeck, the construction manager, and Swan. The goal is to help students understand the integration of design concepts and actual construction techniques and to be better prepared for careers in construction project management or design engineering.

Classes take place in a learning lab that is located inside the construction perimeter, giving the students a front row seat on the building process. The students are introduced to a variety of construction-related topics from the teaching team and they have an opportunity to meet with a series of people involved in the process, including the university planners, the architects and the builders, on site to gain an understanding of all the steps and procedures in the construction of a new building.

"Tufts has never taught an engineering course like this before," said Swan. "The students get to see, from concept to close, how a building goes about getting constructed."

Tom Trufant is a member Linbeck's construction management team, which is managing the construction on these buildings. For engineering and construction management students this is "an opportunity to get an idea about the job and what it is really like," he says.

"It was good just to connect with the community," adds Trufant. "Having the classroom there enabled students--or anyone else interested in the job--to ask questions and really be part of it.

"Additionally, this venue allows students to talk to members of the site organization to better understand roles and responsibilities of the site teams--project managers, superintendents, and field engineers."

Having the class on the construction site enables the students to ask very detailed and specific questions about the process, giving them a concrete insight into why decisions are made and what effects each decision has on the whole process.

Another important aspect of the class is the financial overview, which helps students understand the complexities the university's management team faces when taking on large and complex building projects. The students are able to understand issues of conflict, scheduling, and negotiation as well as design and construction techniques.

"We're not learning how things should be--which is what most undergraduate courses consist of--but how things are, in a real-life setting, going on in real time," says Tufts senior engineering major Jackie Kossman. "It's the real world." Too often classes only teach how things are supposed to be, if everything goes according to plan. But then, what always goes according to plan?

According to Tufts, one outgrowth of the course has been an increased interest in construction management as a career choice.

While the approach at Tufts is very hands-on to the point of actually laying brick under the instruction of the site mason contractor, there are many different approaches to education in professions such as architecture, engineering, and construction. Some involve classes with the architects or engineers leading them, projects that get the students working on specific real-world jobs, and even learning labs that put the students in the middle of a challenging scenario. One such learning experience takes place at Rice University in Houston.

At Rice, a combination of students in the architecture program and the business school take a class that attempts to develop cost-effective and functional designs and solutions for an urban area owned by the university. The class, consisting of 10 architecture and 10 MBA students, looks at an area in Houston, typically three or four blocks, which they have to redesign and plan for mixed usage. The class is broken up into project teams and each team has to come up with a plan that yields a 10 percent return on investment. The students must think as though they are administrators for the university and must wisely invest in the types of development that will have the most positive impact on the institution.

Chris Downing, assistant professor of management at Rice in the Jones Graduate School of Management, is one half of the teaching partnership, along with William Cannady, professor of architecture at Rice. "This is a real-life experience," notes Downing. "It gives exposure to the MBA students and architects that they might not otherwise get."

"The MBAs and architects come to the course with very different expectations. They have to learn to see the other side's point of view. How they manage that process determines how well they do."

One of the most innovative aspects of this class is its collaboration with a number of outside consultants who normally are involved in the development process, including local developers, construction estimators from Linbeck, MEP engineers from Carter Burgess, structural engineers from CBM and contractors from Miner-Dederick Construction.

One particularly eye-opening challenge trains students to see the financial aspects from the administration's point of view. For several years, Bruce Perry, a chief estimator at Linbeck, has spent two weeks each semester helping students crunch realistic financial data. Bruce takes their drawings and creates conceptual estimates for each of their situations. "I show them where their costs are going and make suggestions to reduce costs," he says. "I show them why their designs cost a lot and what they can do about it." Perry's input has led teams to make "radical changes" in their drawings to create a stronger return on investment.

With an understandable pride, Downing says that "these are real projects. They've been priced by people who normally do this for a living and the numbers are very accurate. We show the results to groups all over town." Indeed, one of the intents and clear benefits of the class is to draw the city of Houston more into the process and the life of the university.

In addition to the project itself, the class gives both the students and their eventual employers a variety of additional benefits.

"This kind of class shows the students that when they collaborate they have the potential to instigate cost savings and achieve a quicker construction schedule," says Mel Hildebrandt, vice chairman at Linbeck. "Too often, students learn in an academic setting that is devoid of input from other areas that might be concerned with a project. This aspect helps to drive home the need for collaboration throughout the process, and gives them a dose of reality."

Other programs that emphasize a cooperative approach include those at Columbia and the University of Washington. Columbia offers a variety of real world experiences for the students through its architecture school, which offers Urban Design and Planning, Historical Preservation, and Real Estate Development programs. For those considering a career in architecture, the school offers a practical, five-week course that includes field trips to a firm's offices to see how the practice works, as well as to buildings and museums.

This type of introductory program is one way to give students an understanding of the business of building. In this way they gain a practical understanding of both the academic and work experiences involved in becoming a design or construction professional. "Courses like the one at Rice are a great way to get prospective students interested in the industry before they jump into it full time," says Hildebrandt.

The University of Washington, in Seattle, also has a number of ways that its architecture students can obtain experience. One unique course is American Indian Straw Bale Housing Design/Build. In this one-of-a-kind situation, the students design and build a straw bale house for tribal members on one of three major reservations in Washington: the Pine Ridge, Crow, or Northern Cheyenne. The students begin by constructing the previous class's project so they have an understanding of the house and what they need to do. Once the house is complete, they begin work on their own class design. Their design is then constructed by the next class that comes through.

Washington also has a whole section of courses that put students into professional situations. These classes focus on various aspects of architectural work, such as designing to the local building code, contracts, management, and field work. The field work class puts the students into an office and lets them see what goes on, what issues arise, and what challenges they might face building in a cooperative team environment.

On another path for increased experience, the universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan offer programs that combine experiences from two different disciplines. Penn, like many other schools today, offers a dual management and technology graduate degree, where its graduate engineering students also obtain an MBA from Penn's Wharton School. The MBA helps them with their managerial skills and understanding of what they need to do in the office, and not just on a jobsite.

There are also a number of graduate dual degree programs within the design school at Penn. These include Master of Architecture/Master of City Planning and Master of Architecture/Master of Science in Historic Preservation.

Michigan has recently started offering certificates in real estate to some of its graduate students. Fields that also have been able to do this include graduate degrees in planning, landscape architecture, civil engineering, urban design, business, and law. Since much of what happens in these fields is the result of what developers and real estate professionals do, the program attempts to provide students with the tools to better use the resources with which they work.

These programs all bring varying degrees of hands-on and real world experience to the students that help universities attract and retain students. In fact, there are a number of benefits for both the students and the schools. First, both the companies who work with them and the students get a good feel and understanding for each other. When it comes to the hiring process, the companies know they are getting students with experience performing the tasks they will need to handle when they get to work. They also know that these students will have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful in these positions. Students know the need for collaboration, the need for budgets and all of the effects changes can have on the overall project.

Trufant, speaking about the Tufts project and the students involved there, says his firm was considering hiring students from the class because they got to know these students first-hand.

The students also get a very good understanding of what it is like to work for and with a professional firm, be it architecture, construction, engineering, management, design, or others. Depending on the type of opportunities the class brings them, students get varying degrees of experience. One of the most important aspects of these classes is the ability to collaborate, work with and manage others. This collaborative effort might be with fellow employees, customers, or subcontractors.

By exposing students to different aspects of the profession and how other fields and businesses relate to it, they can also see what other avenues are open to them. They have a better understanding about their career choice, which can lead to a stable career path, as well as happier and more munificent alumni.

When colleges and universities reach out and bring the real world into their classes--or even the classes into the real world--the benefits are tangible for the students, the schools, and potential employers.


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