Hard Hat Higher Ed

It has all of the characteristics of a typical construction site. The pounding of hammers and the piercing sound of circular saws fill the air. Workers in hard hats, goggles and neon-colored vests are busy at assorted tasks. But what’s unusual about this construction site is that the entire crew is barely into their 20s.

Last year, Auburn University set aside two acres for what’s called the Field Lab, where Building Science students get jobsite experience. Power and water are on the property. A job trailer houses a classroom and two offices. Two large metal containers store materials and tools. Where much of the activity happens is on a 30-by-40-foot concrete slab used for various projects.

The Field Lab was created in response to students’ desire to learn by doing, explains Richard Burt, head of the School of Building Science.

“We found that students wanted a practical, hands-on experience, so we tried to recreate an actual construction site, ” Burt explains. “I believe we are the first university to have one of this size.”

All activities at the Field Lab are conducted as they would be on any construction site, including safety training, training with tools, reading plans, scheduling and material procurement. The jobsite also gives students experience in concrete form building, framing, installation of trusses, along with concrete mixing and placement.

- Sponsor -

Industry partners, such as Birmingham-based general contractors Brasfield & Gorrie, have donated materials for the Field Lab. 

On a gray late January day, students are at work putting up a temporary wall on the concrete slab. Two classes meet on the jobsite for three hours a week — a structures class that studies working with wood and steel, and a concrete and soils class that deals with issues such as erosion control. A number of labs also are conducted on the site, including constructing a pan slab, an elevated concrete slab formed with integral beams.

Mike Hosey helps junior Alex Body and other students work in a jobsite-like setting.

Michael Hein, a building science professor conducting the class on that chilly mid-winter morning, points out that the range of experience among students varies, and some had never even swung a hammer.

Kelley O’Reilly falls into that category. The 21-year-old junior was an accounting major at the University of Alabama before transferring to Auburn, hoping to become a project manager in commercial construction. Hein says 5 to 10 percent of Auburn University’s Building Science majors are women.

“I decided I didn’t want to be in a cubicle all day, ” says O’Reilly, taking a break from hammering the wall. “It’s still a business, but I get to be outdoors. They tell you things in the classroom, but this is where you get the experience, experience I didn’t have.”

Unlike O’Reilly, Evan Jones, 21, also a junior in building science, entered the program with construction experience. “You get the basics in the classroom, but you can’t learn it all from a book, ” says Jones, pausing from operating a circular saw. His career goal is to be a master carpenter or master craftsman.

Most students will not build a building with their own hands but will, instead, be in administrative positions, such as project manager or construction supervisor. Yet they need to understand certain management issues that are best learned outside the classroom, says Burt.

In the past, the role of construction superintendent was typically filled by trades people who progressed to a supervisory position, Burt explains. Today, he says, graduates straight out of school are being employed as assistant superintendents, so they need to be much more aware of how buildings go together.

Although the Field Lab is fairly new, providing students with hands-on experience has long been part of the School of Building Science’s approach to teaching, says Bruce Smith, an associate professor with the program. Students have completed many community service concrete projects, such as sidewalks at schools and parks, and have been involved in historic preservation work. Students also have worked in framing, trusses and concrete form construction, as well as designing and building a small steel structure.

Within the next year, planning for a new classroom building on the construction site will begin, and concrete aggregate bins will be constructed. The new building will increase the number and scope of student projects and make the classes less dependent on weather conditions, says Smith, who notes that an added benefit of the Field Lab is the opportunity it provides for research. Hein was able to use a grant to construct a test facility on the site for pervious concrete and blacktop. A graduate student constructed a field bed and control room for a geothermal heat pump system to research ways to improve the efficiency and cost of future installations. 

“The students love getting outside and getting their hands dirty, ” says Burt. “And they learn how hard a bricklayer, or a carpenter or steel erector work. Hands-on experience not only makes them better managers, but gives them a better understanding and respect for these skills.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

Jessica Armstrong

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox