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Building to Learn

Underneath the arches…students carefully suspend the Stockton Bridge precast decking from its cables © Expedition Engineering

There is a move to get undergraduates away from their lecture theatres and knee-deep in mud by tackling mock-ups of actual projects. Chris Wise and Ed McCann argue that the lessons students learn on a building site provide a context for formal education which will be invaluable in the dirty real worlds of construction and design. Together they have put their energies where their passions lie and have helped create the Constructionarium, a 10 acre site in Norwich. They have also been actively pushing for curriculum changes in the UK.

Civil engineering students at London’s Imperial College float 25 tonnes of hand-constructed reinforced concrete oil rig onto an artificial lake in Norfolk and then sink it, to much applause from their mates. Behind this moment of delight lies seven years of increasing clarity about 21st century engineering education, triggered by our experience of working closely with over 500 students in some 200 project sessions.

Time for a new educational model

We are civil and structural engineers who lectured at Imperial College. As practitioners who sometimes teach, we have had excellent access to the world of engineering education. Close up, this has been a revelation. Received wisdom in the UK has it that one learns theory at university, and the rest in practice. We feel that this logic is wonky and outmoded: it is not based on the needs of 21st engineering but has been post-rationalised to suit academic career structures rewarded primarily through research.

Contrary to The Royal Academy of Engineering’s own recent report to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, we have only seen occasional evidence of a correlation between excellence in research and good teaching of engineering practice. Astonishingly, at the end of their second year, over half of the undergraduates we saw who could invert matrices, analyse beam stresses and even plot Mohr’s circle, could not draw the basic components of a suspension bridge or a water supply system. Students today do not seem to understand the difference between a tunnel and a pipe, a valve and pump, an excavator and a bulldozer and so on! This prompts the fundamental question:

What is the purpose of a 21st century engineering education?

The educational needs of those seeking careers in engineering science or engineering practice are very different. While engineering science may be best served by universities, the relevant experience to teach engineering practice is now rooted firmly in an industrial setting undergoing rapid change.

We feel that an essential starting point for learning begins with a critical assessment of the skills needed by the 21st century engineer. The Constructionarium described here aims to develop some of these skills. Certainly, a huge concrete oil rig is a 25 tonne demonstration of intent!

Critically, the Constructionarium wouldn’t have happened without the active involvement of industry. Experience tells us that educational change like this needs strong direction and visionary support from its accrediting institutions, flexibility from its Government paymasters, and a lot of help from industry who in the end will benefit from good graduates.

How and what to teach

How should we educate engineers today? Whenever we ask this we get head-scratching and a catalogue of difficulties, but the simple answer is to give them relevant experience: sufficient, balanced, and gained through patient practice. The key drivers for that experience are the forces which drive engineering practice itself:

“Engineering is the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man” (from the current Charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers)

This definition goes back to 1828; it implies the need for art, synthesis, choice, design, materials, theory and construction, and has survived pretty well. So how can we help students today learn about things like nature, art, invention and ideas and even ‘the world’? The authors think it is entirely reasonable to educate a 21st century student for practice by providing a properly relevant, balanced foundation course, pretty much covering the skill set asked for by the professional bodies (see Figure 1).

The growth of an idea

The realisation that a swathe of skill sets weren’t being learnt inspired us to try to improve the students’ ability to do real engineering projects. Unlike exams, real projects are ‘open’ problems done in teams, needing what Renzo Piano calls “the turbocharged application of experience”. But students do not have the experience needed to turbo-charge and so can’t even begin to engineer things that can actually be built! Out of this vacuum came the Constructionarium.

At the first feedback session from Imperial College’s Civil Engineering Design Course, Stef Stefanou of John Doyle Construction agreed to help fund some construction teaching to sit alongside design. No longer would students be allowed to sit in blissful innocence away from of the charms of construction! They would get real experience on a real site, as big, dirty, heavy and challenging as possible. Into the mix was added Alison Ahearn’s context course in law, communications and team behaviour, all natural partners to construction.

The Constructionarium has developed into a three-way partnership of contractor, university and consultant. For Imperial, Doyle’s provides site supervision and construction plant, training and materials, and Expedition Engineering Ltd conducts the designs. In 2003 the pilot was held at developer Stanhope’s Chiswick Park.

Early days

In West London, Doyle’s built a 60 m long artificial river and lake. Student teams were given a site hut, food, drawings, materials, clothing and plant and the simple task to price, plan and finish their projects by Friday. In five eventful days they built a cable-stayed bridge over water; a precast segmental concrete bridge over a gorge; and an arch dam and its spillway. They learned the benefits of military organisation; they found pitfalls in democracy; and they discovered holism, and the need for a concrete batching plant. As one said, “if you don’t understand the basics then you can’t possibly master anything more complicated”. The pilot was so satisfying that it graduated to a new permanent 10 acre site at the National Construction College in Norfolk, now open to every university in the country. With a man-made river which flows through a gorge into a 4 m deep lake, it even has some deliberately dodgy ground to give students muddy practice in deep basements.

The Constructionarium

On site in Norfolk today projects built at a scale of about 1:10 are built by construction ‘companies’ of about 16 to 24 students, who take responsibility for one site for a week. In time, we’d like students to learn even more by designing their own projects and then building them, but this needs further curriculum change. For now, they tackle versions of real projects, foundations and all, concocted by the consultant partners. These have included: the Torre de Collserola, a 288 m guyed tower in Barcelona; Canary Wharf Underground Station, in water-bearing sandy sludge; Expedition’s double bow footbridge at Stockton-on-Tees, built from a boat; the 25 tonne concrete gravity oil platform; a 40 m long cable net stadium which nearly blew away; a 4 m high dam which held but the gorge leaked; and Ove Arup’s Kingsgate Footbridge in Durham, which worked perfectly.

Teams cost and programme their projects using specially intensified plant and labour rates to suit the telescoped scales. After a safety induction, they become labourers, foremen, schedulers, managers and estimators. Some are trained in power tools; others work with formwork, concrete and steel, steel-fixing, puddle clay, bentonite, cables, theodolites and plant. The professional site staff checks method statements and risk assessments.

Many students admit they have never even put up a shelf, so their learning curve is very steep when faced with a foreman with 30 years site experience. When teams struggle they can ‘buy in’ expert help. One team had a £25,000 per hour excavator on standby for 36 hours “just in case”– a painful lesson – and their claim for “unforeseen ground conditions ”was rejected by the ‘client’, Doyle’s Peter Goring. Teams have to finish on time, on budget, safely, to an acceptable quality, and are continuously assessed by contractor and consultants. Now an integral part of Imperial’s MEng course, the Constructionarium is worth 20% of the project marks in the third year.


So far, the construction and design industry has invested about £150,000 in the initiative, and core funding is in place for the future. Students typically pay for travel and accommodation (about £250 to £300 each, reduced further by industrial donations and grants). The week’s event costs the contractor about £250 per student for labour, materials and plant, drawn from across the supply chain (or from petty cash). The many industrial contributors acting through the Constructionarium’s board carry the other costs. These include CITB, the Arup Foundation, the Concrete Centre, John Doyle Group, and Shepherd Construction.

Expansion of the initiative

In the past three years, 225 Imperial undergraduates have built under Doyle’s expert guidance. This summer, 50 students from Leeds also ran projects in Norfolk, working with Shepherd Construction and Arup. In 2006 they will be joined by students from universities in Scotland and the West of England, with more following in 2007. Our aim is for every university course in the country to participate, encouraged by their institutions.

The feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive as they have been introduced to the mysterious world of building things. Construction and design professionals feel it is a great opportunity to participate in the future of the industry. In addition it provides an opportunity for telling, down-to-earth job interviews by giving broad-based undergraduates a chance to shine.

For some students, it is a life-changing experience. A few realise they never ever want to go near a construction site again! Others muse “some might find it strange that a student would want to dig holes” but then happily build cofferdams and forget about hyperbolic cosines. For many, it just makes them want to get designing and building for real.

“I admit there were times when I wanted to crawl under a table and hide from it all – especially when the concrete lorry appeared in the distance and we were still frantically building rebar cages! I don’t believe there is any other way of gaining experience and perspective like this – even summer placements do not give you the complete management of a project as we had on the Constructionarium.”

Jenny Austin,Year Three student, 2005

Students find out that they have built a dam with a spillway that really works © Expedition Engineering

Students find out that they have built a dam with a spillway that really works © Expedition Engineering

“Engineering is the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man”

Do engineers become good because of what they learn at university, or in spite of it?

Our research shows little correlation between student performance in theoretical subjects and in design projects (see Figure 1). Somehow, good design students are getting their skills outside of the teaching environment. Without being formally taught, these good designers show a balance of skill which is remarkably close to the stated requirements of professional institutions. The Institution of Structural Engineers ‘Notes to Candidates for Chartership’ emphasise the necessary breadth of skills required:

    • a sound understanding of core engineering principles

    • the ability to use relevant existing technology coupled with the ability to locate and use new research and development to benefit their work and engineering generally

    • the ability to solve complex engineering problems and produce viable engineering solutions using appropriate methods of analysis

    • the ability to exercise independent judgement in the application of engineering science and knowledge

    • technical, management and leadership skills to plan, manage and direct human, material and financial resources

    • commitment to the public interest in all aspects of their work, including: health, safety and risk; financial; commercial; legal; environmental; social; energy conservation and sustainability

    • effective communication and interpersonal skills

    • knowledge of the statutory and other regulations affecting current practice in engineering

    • a significant base of Information Technology skills

    • commitment to the profession of engineering

Most of these are not properly addressed in the current curriculum.

Biographies – Chris Wise FREng and Ed McCann

Chris Wise and Ed McCann are both directors of Expedition Engineering. Ed McCann is a civil engineer with an interest in sustainable infrastructure who ran the award-winning water engineering team for Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. Chris Wise is a structural engineer who sits on the Design Council and is Davenport Professor at Yale University School of Architecture for 2006. Both have now resigned from Imperial College over the need for curriculum change, but maintain their interest in education and steering roles on the Constructionarium.

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