Two universities–one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast–are looking at construction education in a new, real world way. Integrating disciplines may be a no-brainer on progressive construction projects, but it’s far from industry norm and even farther from what many programs teach.

Nontraditional. Wentworth lectures on older construction methods, but doesn’t teach them. (Photo courtesy of Wentworth Institute of Technology)

At Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, students from different disciplines began working together last year, and the experiment could be implemented throughout its construction management school next year.

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, first moved from traditional segmented education to an integrated approach in a design-build course. In it, architecture, construction management and engineering students work together to learn the integrated delivery method. Now, the school is taking the integrated approach to a new level and through the entire curriculum. But changing the mindset away from traditional education hasn’t been easy, says Barbara Jackson, director of Cal Poly’s Construction Management Dept., who left the construction industry after 20 years to teach at the undergraduate level.

Not Just a Fad

When she came to the university in 1998, Jackson wanted to teach a design-build course that included architects, engineers and construction management students to integrate the CM function within the design process. First, she had to overcome the prevailing notion that design-build was just a fad. "No one says that anymore," Jackson says.

Others wondered why anyone would want to design an entire course around one delivery method. "My answer was, we’ve already been doing that for 40 years," Jackson says. The school’s entire curriculum up to that point was based on design-bid-build. But when even the government was awarding 70% of its projects using best value, it was time to leave the past behind. "We need to teach students about our future, not our past," she says.

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  • Architects resisted using the word "design" in the name of the course. "They said, ‘we’re not designers,’ but we said, ‘we teach how to listen and work with designers,’" says Jackson. The goal of integrating students is to teach them that working together makes for better problem solving. Industry feedback has been positive. "They love this. They tell us that’s what you need to be teaching," she says.

    Jackson credits Cal Poly’s administrative structure for allowing easy integration of students. Because its construction management department and engineering school are both within the College of Architecture, possible barriers to an integrated approach were removed. The original single design-build course is now three, with class time devoted to learning about collaboration and project management. The latter course teaches students how to balance budget and design. "They learn how to get the most from working together," says Jackson.

    Real World Education. Centex staffers hosted Cal Poly students at homebuilding site in California. (Photo courtesy of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo)

    At Cal Poly, students work together on a real project with real clients to come up with a comprehensive solution. One field trip took students to a Centex Inc., homebuilding site in Atascadero, Calif. "The industry folks basically walked them through the whole sitework component of the job, including equipment operations," says Jackson. "Students loved it. Teaching in the field itself is just another part of the integrated curriculum." She credits the firm’s willingness to make the time commitment to students.

    Ahead of the Curve

    Wentworth has been ahead of the curve in education for many years. Its construction management department focuses only on alternative delivery methods. "We tell our students what the traditional design-bid-build method is, but we don’t teach it," says Mark Hasso, professor and construction management program coordinator.

    Hasso and Garrick Goldenberg, a professor in Wentworth’s architecture school, now seek to improve the curriculum by developing an integrated system that enables 100% collaboration among engineering, architecture and construction management students, says Hasso. The two educators decided it was time to integrate students after Massachusetts adopted design-build in 2004 as an accepted delivery method for transportation projects. "They have to understand the process of working together," says Hasso. "Currently, there is some sort of disconnect among the disciplines."

    The school’s construction management department has experimented with interdisciplinary cooperation in its senior Capstone projects. Department officials are recommending to the school that integration become part of the curriculum, beginning next fall, says Hasso.

    "We are looking for different ways to integrate students besides the senior project," he adds. One suggestion is to teach, as a single course, all courses common to the disciplines. Students would then understand each other’s language and short cuts unique to their particular discipline, Goldenberg says. "They also learn how their work affects another student’s work," he adds.

    Learning Labs

    Cal Poly is implementing a similar program to integrate construction management skills. Students will learn how such disciplines as contract administration, estimating, scheduling, materials and methods and jobsite management apply to different construction sectors, including residential, heavy civil, commercial, specialty contracting and design-build. "That kind of collaboration among students would never happen in a classroom," Jackson says.

    Construction of Cal Poly’s new $16-million Engineering IV building will expand nontraditional learning. When completed in fall 2007, it will provide an array of "lab" spaces earmarked for teaching each construction discipline and market sector. Watching the construction process itself will be a learning experience, says Jackson. Cal Poly could not use state dollars to build the unconventional lab space, so officials are raising the needed $8.3 million from industry. Several firms are already involved.

    The next step is to bring in students from other industry disciplines into the new lab model. "This is now required for CM students, but what if it were required for architecture and engineering students, too?" Jackson says.

    Hoping to encourage similar approaches at other schools, Cal Poly will share its methods at an industry-sponsored conference for design-build educators next June in San Luis Obispo. "There is still resistance at universities for change," says Jackson. "But there are a few faculty who are ready to champion this."