Courtesy of University of Oklahoma
Work Crew University of Oklahoma College of Architecture students learn materials and methods in building mock-ups in industry-funded work lab. Apprentice instructors are on the teaching staff.

When contractors and labor heard that educators at the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture, Norman, Okla., wanted construction science students to have hands-on craft experience, the local construction community joined to make the school's new Construction Fundamentals Lab a reality. “This will greatly enhance students' awareness of what specialty trade contractors, in particular, have to offer in terms of career oppotunities,” says W.J. Wolfe, president of Oklahoma City-based mechanical contractor Wattie Wolfe, who spearheaded the collaboration. “Construction is something you learn with your hands.”

During nine lab sessions, eight- to 10-student teams each work with an industry tradesman to build components for mock-ups that include exterior walls and an interior space. The teams start with structural concrete footings, managing slump tests and ordering concrete. Next, they build block and metal-stud walls, perform electrical, HVAC and plumbing rough-ins and install a drop ceiling as well as the backers for bathroom fixtures. Before hitting the lab, the students discuss safety issues.

“We designed the lab series so that it complements the plan-reading class, an estimating class and a scheduling class,” says Richard C. Ryan, a former contractor and now college professor and associate director at the University of Oklahoma's Haskell and Irene Lemon Construction Science Division. “It gives them the opportunity to sense materials and methods in a team environment, as a work crew.” Even in its controlled environment, the lab presents participants with the same challenges faced by contractors and craftspeople.

“Industry experts give hands-on experience and things to think about, and in the end, [students] have their work judged, which is a common part of our practice,” says Clay Cockrill, a director of business development at The Boldt Co., an Oklahoma City contractor that provided warehouse space last semester for the lab and whose superintendents taught some sessions. “It really fit well within the strategy to have them in our office,” he says. “It created a great synergy. Students also got a good feel for how the different trades and materials interface.”

While the Boldt warehouse served the program well, the college sought its own lab space. The Oklahoma City plumbers and pipefitters union Local 344 donated classroom space and land for a laboratory pavilion. (The vacated elementary school and nine surrounding acres were purchased by the union for its own apprenticeship training program.) Union apprenticeship instructors also were invited to teach the students.

“We felt it would be positive for the industry and positive for our program to partner with a school like the university,” says Mike Liston, the local's training director. “Working with [the students] one-on-one helps them understand the trade better.”

Other local firms, including contractors Anderson & House Inc., Manhattan Construction and Osbourne Electric and Texas-based industry assocation TEXO donated labor, materials and funding. “The industry partnership has been overwhelming,” Ryan says. “They were willing to set up and offer craft instructors, materials and supervision. It made for a well-rounded experience for the students and the faculty as well.”