Your Construction Project as a Learning Tool
by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP
Since the beginning of 2017, Wisconsin voters have approved more than $2 billion worth of facility projects in school district referendums. While this is great news for Wisconsin school districts and the construction industry, it’s even better news for our students. In addition to getting new and updated facilities, students who are interested in the building design and construction professions have the opportunity to garner valuable experience and knowledge beyond their technical education classes.
The nexus between building projects, student desire and demand for talent in the construction profession allows for a momentous opportunity. When a district partners with an architectural firm and construction manager on a facility project, students can learn about the architecture, engineering, and construction professions through hands-on, experiential learning.
Encourage your staff to dream and take advantage of these real-world prospects. But don’t wait until the construction starts…the prospects begin during the planning process.
"The nexus between building projects, student desire, and demand for talent in the construction profession allows for a momentous opportunity."
K-12 Market Leader
The Building Process as a Teaching Tool
Students can be involved in the planning and design phases of building projects. Gaining student perspectives as daily users is helpful to the project and provides students with a window into how the design process functions.
Additionally, there are opportunities for internships, job shadows, and mentorships with architects and engineers. One local high school student, Mackenzie Beck, made such a strong impression on us that we hired her as an intern last summer. She was involved in designing and documenting a new shelter for an area park. Mackenzie’s classmates in her school’s Building Construction 2 class brought her design to life with the help of local contractors. She also received further real-world experience when she was interviewed by her local news during the park shelter’s ribbon cutting in January of this year.
Construction Provides lots of Lessons
There are numerous ways to engage students during the construction process. Having students be a part of the project is often a paradigm shift for many construction professionals who typically try to keep anyone not working on a project far from the jobsite. However, once the professionals realize this is a great way to develop a pipeline of talent and engage the next generation of workers, they often embrace the concept.
Early discussions and planning can ensure opportunities to participate in and observe different phases of the construction process. A recent middle school project provided the opportunity for one district’s high school seniors to complete a construction internship – working weekly with our project manager and field project manager throughout the duration of the project. Imagine how this experience could influence college application reviewers and future employers.
They also provide opportunities for students to work directly with the skilled trades. During a recent large construction project that resulted in new and renovated spaces for a Wisconsin district, students participated in job activity supervision and rough carpentry work. Seizing upon opportunities like these creates interest in high-demand construction jobs, which is great for our economy and for our students.
Your Building Projects are Ongoing Tools for Learning
The learning opportunities don’t stop once a project is complete. Students who are considering design or construction careers can continue to be involved in your building improvements and new projects. Learning opportunities include:
- Review building design intent in comparison to actual construction results. Students can interact with initial renderings or 3D views to compare the plan with actual results. This can continue year after year as a teaching tool.
- Develop comprehension of construction and building components. Everything from repurposed materials, low or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) products, lighting choices, acoustics elements, and more can be compared so students gain an understanding of the impact of design decisions.
- Understand facility operations. Software allows school districts to utilize building information modeling to track warranties, maintenance items, system utilization, security, room assignments, and more. This information is incredibly helpful to assess ongoing expenses and can be valuable for teaching students about items such as computerized systems and building system management.
- Monitor occupant use patterns and profiles. Students can monitor how a space is truly being used and if construction elements are being utilized properly. For example, assessment of the lighting levels in relation to the visual tasks being performed in a space is valuable for future planning and cost savings. Insufficient or poor-quality lighting may reduce teacher and student productivity while areas that are over-lit waste energy.
- Study the climate and environment (indoor and outdoor). Looking at elements such as temperature, air quality, positioning of the building and water consumption can be evaluated year after year for practical student lessons.
- Understand thermal comfort. Evaluating how students and staff operate at differing temperatures allows students the chance to understand the true impact of temperature regulation.
- Monitor energy use. Consistently evaluating energy usage and how actions and choices impact that usage is vital to future designs and planning. Allowing students to observe how routine maintenance, equipment purchases, etc., impact the bottom line and the environment is an excellent teaching tool.
Beyond the Construction Industry
There are numerous other ways to study the effects of the built environment on human interaction and performance. Biophilia, which is about incorporating natural materials, views of nature, vegetation, natural light, and other elements of the natural world into the built environment, is a growing field and provides new horizons for our students. This field will continue to grow as more people become aware of the scientific research and grasp the mental and physical performance benefits to both the workforce and education. Similarly, a greater grasp on seasonal disorders related to weather and allergens can be studied with resultant real-world impacts and outcomes. Understanding how design and the arrangement of space impacts us sociologically provides engagement with fields that students may not have previously understood.
Differing Levels for Different Students
Connecting educational leaders with construction professionals early in the process to gauge interest and enthusiasm is the initial step in determining what level of learning your project will provide. Design and construction professionals can speak to classes, conduct construction tours, review student resumes, perform mock employment interviews, and participate in panel discussions.
While the interest level of older students is more likely to be greater, we encourage engaging with younger students as well. In a recent elementary school project, we let children come into the newly constructed gym. We briefly shared information about the building process and then let them play. We provided sidewalk chalk and allowed the students to draw on the concrete floor, which would soon be under a wood gym floor — giving students a connection to the building project.
Partnerships Produce Positive Experiences
These are just a few examples of the ways that students can gain from your next construction or remodeling project — and get to know the people who make buildings come to life. Creativity and collaboration are the dynamic elements that make hands-on learning happen. Use this article as a catalyst for a discussion between faculty and project professionals, and your students will reap the benefits for many years to come.
Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP, is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. Andres is a LEED Accredited Professional, past President of the American Institute of Architects Wisconsin, and the regional representative to the AIA Strategic Council. He has worked with more than 50 school districts on PreK-12 educational facilities, providing needs assessments, planning, programming, and design services. Jody can be reached at email@example.com.