Walking up the steps outside Virginia Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction, senior Sydney Buck is the only student in sight at the Blacksburg, Va., university. It’s the first visit in months for the construction engineering and management major to the 35,000-student campus, which now looks more like Christmas break than the first week of fall semester. “I think of all the times I’ve walked onto campus—the steps are always so crowded and the tables full,” she recalls. “It’s shocking.”
For the first two weeks, Buck's only in-person class is being held online as a “control measure” to shield classmates from possible virus infection. While Virginia Tech will allow a hybrid of online and in-person instruction this semester, social distancing, masks and half-empty classrooms are the norm.
In past years, Buck would have spent most of her first week catching up with fellow students, meeting with classmates on collaborative projects and popping in to see professors. Instead, she’s headed back to her off-campus apartment, where she expects to spend most of her senior year. “This is the new reality,” Buck says.
Among many other pandemic impacts, U.S. construction management programs and engineering schools have scrambled to continue preparing students for future careers, as college campuses nationwide have had to cut back capacity or send students home since last spring.
Traditional classroom settings are replaced by a broad mix of real-time remote learning, recorded classes and limited in-person instruction and interaction. Some professors seek ways to make classes feel as normal as possible, while others disassemble their established teaching methods and rebuild curricula. With unique challenges, including state and local health guidelines that change with every up and down virus statistics change, each school is creating new education deployment for the near term—and for many, further ahead.
Regardless of class modality, one concern is overarching: How can schools work within virus protocols while continuing to prepare students for jobs in one of the most inherently hands-on and collaborative professional fields?
That question is also core for employers who know the importance of skills developed from group project interaction on campus and off, and one-on-one mentoring.
“What’s missing is so much of the relational nature of construction management programs,” says Ben Farrow, president of the Associated Schools of Construction and associate dean of Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction. “Whether it’s working together on teams or building a relationship with a faculty member or in industry, that’s something that’s really hard to do online. We have to provide a connection point for students and opportunities to work with other people in a remote environment.”
Employers are watching closely. Ted Lower, a former design firm CEO and now an industry leadership development consultant and lecturer, points to resulting shortfalls for students "in witnessing how things come together and some of the latent variables that create unexpected risks – and how to mitigate them," although he says students "will offer greater resourcefulness in using technology."
Milo Riverso, CEO of design firm STV, says that while many schools offer remote degrees, “this is not traditional for AEC careers and poses a radical shift for professors in this area.” He says one concern is whether faculty “are fully equipped with the skills and tools needed to not only teach and test in a virtual environment, but to also provide meaningful feedback to students.”
Limits on field exposure “may affect how quickly students can hit the ground running when they officially join the workforce,” says Greg Dunkle, STO Building Group chief administration officer. “They may be visiting a real jobsite for the very first time, which will certainly lengthen the learning curve.”
Adds Mike Ostendorf, co-founder and CEO of AOA. a Florida construction management firm: "The use of virtual or hybrid instruction does provide a foundation for students in understanding and navigating how to work remotely. The key will be to address and teach the transition from virtual to on-site, as it is critical to understand when working remotely is effective and when it is not."
The Myers-Lawson school strategy provides multiple modes of instruction. Roughly 30% of classes will use a hybrid of in-person and online instruction, where remotely-based students will either attend classes via live video, referred to as synchronous, or watch recorded classes, termed asynchronous. Other courses will be taught entirely online or in-person. On average, classroom attendance will be limited to around one-third of capacity with 6-ft social distancing and mask protocols, says Brian Kleiner, the school’s director.
Like many universities, Kleiner says Virginia Tech will push for in-person classes where collaboration, hands-on participation or observation are critical. Open collaborative tables—called pods—now allow students to interact face to face while seated behind plexiglass dividers, with similar separation in lab stations. Students or professors who prefer not to be physically in classes have the option to go online, if feasible.
“There is no question that retaining in-classroom interaction is one of the biggest challenges. It was much easier to address in class by simply looking at a student’s facial expressions, their reactions, to recognize when some lecture points needed to be further discussed,” says Nenad Gucunski, civil and environmental engineering chair at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “In this remote environment, the instructor has to develop a strategy by stimulating students to ask questions,” he adds, often using just the chat room of the video conferencing platform.
Schools are trying other approaches incorporating technology. At Virginia Tech, one professor teaching a smart buildings class had students use cell phones in place of commercial building sensors to conduct data acquisition for assignments.
This fall, Kleiner will include the topic of online collaboration in his leadership class, focusing on how to manage virtual teams. Rutgers faculty are exploring technologies for virus contact tracing and building environmental monitoring through remote sensing and artificial intelligence “that will lead to new instructional opportunities and preparation of the next generation of engineers,” Gucunski says.
The pandemic has also generated new industry-education links and market niches. Helping universities plan for safe reopening, design firm Mott MacDonald used its STEPS software to create pedestrian models at Rutgers “to see how CDC guidance will affect operations of the bus shuttle service that moves students between campuses,” says Nicholas DeNichilo, firm CEO in North America.
Despite the intent of universities to offer in-person learning, schools have to be ready to restrict on-campus activity and switch to virtual if a virus outbreak occurs, which has already happened at several, including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Clemson and Notre Dame. Virginia Tech’s Kleiner says “the wild card … is what happens off campus. We can’t control that.”
Many schools are starting the year fully online. Noting “the shifting nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on other colleges and universities,” Drexel University President John Fry said it will remain online when its fall semester begins in late September.
Christine Fiori, head of the Philadelphia-based school’s construction, engineering and project management and systems engineering department, says professors had already prepared backup online syllabi for courses, and that at the urging of industry, the school experimented with offering online classes prior to COVID-19.
In some classes, faculty found solutions, such as mailing kits of design class materials to freshman students. Still, the school is grappling with how to conduct other classes, particularly labs. “How do we give students the feeling of pouring concrete? How do we have them break steel? We’re trying it and we will see how the students respond. Those hands-on classes are tough,” says Fiori.
Jackie Charlton, a junior civil engineering major at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., looks forward to this semester, noting that her critical lab courses will be in person, despite some qualms about risks of on-campus trips from her offsite apartment.
“I’m just trying to determine when to get hands-on experience or stay off campus as much as I can. I’m doing it one step at a time because anything can happen in three months,” she says, noting difficulties last spring of the fast-track adjustment to online learning. “If I don’t try to think positive, I’m just going to drive myself crazy.”
The difference now is better prepared virtual offerings and changes to instructional approach, says Stephanie Farrell, interim engineering school dean. Remote classes “can be done quite effectively for engineering,” she says, noting new faculty-designed remote experiments that are “a really great example of making the best of the situation.”
While Charlton remains concerned about how current training will affect her job prospects, Farrell says, “our partners have said it will not impact at all.” She adds: “Students are getting skills from this that will be very valuable."
Washington State University, located on the state’s far eastern edge, moved to online-only instruction this fall. Despite challenges, David Gunderson, associate professor of construction management, says remote connections will give students more opportunities to engage with industry. He says the program now can attract a wider range of professionals as adjunct professors, since travel to the remote campus isn’t an issue. “We’re geographically challenged and that’s been a problem,” Gunderson says. “Frankly, we’re now in a better position. I think we’ll see industry step up more.”
Hunter Hohman, a university construction management senior, worked this summer as an intern for Skanska on a Portland, Ore., project. When the school announced it was going online, he saw an opportunity. This fall, he will remain in Portland, working part-time for the contractor while taking classes online. “They are allowing us more flexibility to keep these internships going,” Hohman says. “Between work and school, I’ve gotten pretty good at adapting to the virtual platform.”
Kansas State University is using a mix of online and hybrid in-person classes this fall, with many students taking advantage of online flexibility, says Katie Loughmiller, assistant professor in its architectural engineering and construction science department. “After the spring, it became clear they prefer to watch a video of a live session and have a Q&A session later.”
This semester, she is teaching online classes in scheduling and cost control, construction operations and project finance using a hybrid approach, prerecording lectures with students split into two to three recitations that meet once a week for discussion groups. All classes are split into two groups with half attending each day on a rotation. Some meet in person and some meet via Microsoft Teams.
Loughmiller says the schedule accommodates work-life balance, allowing her to be home in the mornings and on-campus in the afternoon—driven by her 9-year-old daughter’s own hybrid learning environment that involves online class from home three days per week.
In addition to hybrid, the school also offers classes using a “Zoom-blended” method, where half of students attend class in person and half attend via Zoom from home. Students rotate which days they attend online or in person. A “recorded-blended” method is also offered, similar to Zoom-blended except students watch a recorded lecture instead of a live one
Loughmiller says many students preferred evening online instruction due to family obligations or work. “We ended up shifting a lot of office hours and study sessions to evenings to accommodate this new situation,” she adds.
Morgan Auman, a senior in Purdue University’s School of Construction Management, also is trying to make the most of online content. A lab she’s taking this fall would normally be a two-hour in-person session. This year, it is split in two, with half of the class attending the first hour in person and the other half taking the second hour. To make up for reduced class times, students have prerecorded videos that explain lessons before the in-person sessions.
Despite the convenience, Auman does sense a loss of collaboration. Bouncing ideas in groups is harder when separated online or by in-person social distancing, she says. Even asking questions can be a challenge. “When you’re on a Zoom call, a lot of students don’t want to be there, so when the lecture is over, it’s done,” she says. “I usually have tons of questions, but I don’t want to make others wait.”
Since California’s state university system declared in May that all schools would be 100% online this fall, educators such as Ghada Gad have been exploring ways to keep communication with students as familiar as possible. The associate engineering professor at Cal Poly-Pomona says she leaves 30 minutes open at the end of online classes for questions. Gad says one effective use of Zoom is the breakout room option, where students can do group work during class, interact and share screens. “As faculty, you can jump from one breakout room to the next, observing and answering questions,” she adds.
But students still see drawbacks. Jared Kaplan, a senior mechanical engineering student at the University of Maryland, which will be all online as of Sept. 8, cites concern about virtual discussion sessions to address technical complexities in place of “incredibly useful one-on-one conversations. This is much more difficult to do on online messaging platforms or Zoom.”
In a recent survey, Rutgers engineering students termed last spring’s online instruction effective, but 62% said live learning was their first choice.
Drexel senior Tom Bell has mixed opinions about online education so far. Asynchronous instruction can “give people an excuse to take the easy way out and end up cheating themselves.” He was able to speed up or slow down recordings, as needed, sometimes skipping over portions of lecture. He felt very engaged in some synchronous classes, but still fears his in-person communication skills could suffer this year.
Purdue construction technology senior Noah Jackson sees loss of extra-curricular events and activities as a key negative of his hybrid semester. "The hybrid school model works seamlessly for learning academic material, but can not provide the extent of learning that comes with being involved with in-person clubs and teams," he says.
A few weeks into his freshman year at Arizona State University's construction management program, Eduardo Godoy admits it’s been tough finding his footing. Although he tries to network and meet fellow students, COVID-19 protocols make it complicated. “It feels kind of lonely when you’re just back behind your screen all the time,” he says.
Godoy also says that, while he is interested in construction, he had hoped for more hands-on opportunities so he could decide whether to make it his career. Still, he hopes these early difficulties will ultimately help him grow as a person. “Before, I’d hesitate to connect with people,” he says. “Now, if I meet someone, I get contact information right then.”
Tony Lamanna, program chair at ASU’s Del E. Webb School of Construction, says the school offers in-person learning, but in some classes only eight of 60 students chose that option. “We can cap in-person attendance, but we can’t stop students from going full Zoom,” he says.
Lamanna says that using remote technologies like Zoom don’t inherently make group work less collaborative. He notes some industry firms that have seen office productivity remain the same or even increase by going online—and that some are contemplating getting rid of offices. Staff will need online collaboration skills because “lowering overhead with smaller offices is a trend I think is here to stay,” he says.
ASU already has extensive experience with online learning. The school offers an online Masters program in construction and invested $15,000 per classroom this summer to add cameras, microphones and other upgrades. Lamanna notes industry firms that have seen office productivity increase by going online—with some maintaining remote employee locations and closing offices.
'Untethered From A Cubicle'
“This is a unique time in the world that will have impacts for generations, most of which I think will be positive as we untether talent from a cubicle,” says Kevin W. Brown, chief human resources officer of engineer Ardurra Group. “The innovations emerging from this pandemic will revolutionize the way we learn and work, and I find that personally exciting.“
Technology can be constrained by location and access, however. Lamanna notes that rural students sometimes struggle to get sufficient bandwidth for online work, such as those based on the Navajo Nation. “Their Internet connection is not that great,” he explains. “They’d much rather work here than from home.”
Still, if rural Internet access can be improved, Lamanna sees online instruction as a potential boon for construction. “Think of megaprojects in rural places, where people don’t have local access to college,” he says. “They can take an online program and when a project starts, they would have employment.”
In some cases, computing power is more of a concern. Typically, students use on-campus computer labs, outfitted with all of the professional software needed for their projects. Kansas State's Loughmiller says few companies offer free or inexpensive student versions of professional software, so students have to connect with on-campus computers remotely. “It’s a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution, but it definitely means you don’t need a nice computer—you just get on the Internet and you can access everything on that remote desktop computer,” she says.
School computers are being shipped to students, says Auburn’s Farrow, noting that some seniors required specialty software for their capstone projects. “We actually boxed up a bunch of desktop computers and put them in the mail to students, so we could move a lab from the university to their homes,” he says.
Although the current efforts being made to improve online learning are done out of necessity, schools are evaluating what works well and what could become a permanent part of AEC education. “If we have the technology implemented, I don’t see why we would go back,” Lamanna says. “This opens a door for education.”
In fact, Loughmiller says the pandemic may have forced a long-overdue reset. “In some ways, this is the best thing that could have happened,” she says. “We have faculty who have taught the same thing the same way for 20 years and have never taken the time to update. This is forcing every one of us to reevaluate what is important, what content is not necessary and where we put our energy and effort. This will end with all of these programs being even better.”
Pros and Cons
But some industry veterans express strong concern. “Teaching safety or fitting PPE over a video link is never a great answer,” says Doug Houseman, a power sector expert at the 1898 & Co. consulting unit of Burns & McDonnell. “All the theory in the world won’t teach you the consequences of failure, only experimentation does that, and virtual worlds don’t teach it the same way as having a model cave-in happening the night before inspection.”
Ron Lauster, president of contractor W.M. Jordan Co., adds that while some schools have spent years honing online programs, others are rushing to find solutions. "Doing so as a reaction to COVID-19, while a realistic way to continue as safely as possible, may not provide the same level of planning and coordination for a program until there is time to work out all the kinks," he says. "If the virtual learning environment remains long-term it could mean a longer period of time for people to develop interpersonal skills that are so vital to successful industry relationships."
Lauster adds that "it is often easy for people to be bold and expressive when writing an email, text, or blog post, yet they can find difficulty presenting information in-person, with confidence, in a room of their peers. Both sets of skill levels are critical to success in this industry. Construction is the ultimate team sport."
PCL Vice President Aaron Yohnke points to impacts for corporate culture development. "It’s tough to create a strong corporate culture when you are working virtually only,"he says. "I am concerned about what working virtually means to mentoring, and more specifically informal mentoring when you can pop into someone’s office with no agenda and just talk. This was a really big part of my education in the business. There is a certain power to hearing about projects, real challenge and accomplishments."
Paul Schmall, vice president of Keller Specialty Services, sees a faculty challenge in virtual settings “to identify [students] who are drifting away.” But he says Keller "looks at a recent graduate engineer as somebody with the engineering fundamentals under their belt, and as somebody who has learned how to learn. We will take it from there."
Bechtel offered for the first time what chief human resources officer Justin Zaccaria said was a successful all-virtual, four-week internship program to over 300 students. "We are hosting virtual career fairs and partnering with student organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers to support recruiting events," he says. "We believe schools and universities can do the same and safely deliver knowledge and applied skills through various channels even under these difficult circumstances." Michael Horodniceanu, former New York City subway construction chief and a one-time consultant who now runs New York University’s design and construction innovation hub, says online instruction may actually boost student presentation skills “that will probably become the differentiator for future success.”
Lauster sees the pandemic as a measure of students' future agility in an industry where unknowns are a fact of life. "When these students accepted college offers in fall, they did not anticipate their first semester of classes being completely virtual," he says. "They have had to remain fluid. Students who can successfully adapt to this new style of learning and communication will have a leg up when heading into their careers."
Skip Notte, vice president at Dewberry, says the firm is working with several higher education instructors to develop virtual presentations and follow-up Q&A sessions for the fall semester, as well as a hybrid senior design course that includes professional mentors meeting with student teams through Zoom and in-person outdoors locations. "I don’t have any concern with an all-virtual or hybrid instruction for this academic year," he says.
Virginia Tech engineering senior Buck saw her spring study abroad program in Australia cut short, forcing her to continue online in the U.S. with a 16-hour time difference from her professors. Over the summer, her engineering internship with HGA Architects also went all remote. Working from home, she collaborated with teams in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee and Minneapolis on a project in San Diego.
With more than five months working just online, Buck says she feels comfortable. “I don’t ever see it going away. “Whether it's university or industry, we realize there’s a good amount of work we can do virtually,” she says. “It’s an experience I would not have graduated with pre-COVID.”