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How UMass Amherst Uses Construction Technology to Turn Students Into Smart Hires

Opening the door to construction careers for younger generations has never been more important. That’s why University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Building and Construction Technology program focuses on bridging the gap between academia and the industry. Read along as Constructible interviews author and Senior Lecturer Alex Schreyer about bringing new construction methods into the classroom, how programs like his help AEC firms hire and retain good people, and turning new generations on to the joys of surveying.

How UMass Amherst Uses Construction Technology to Turn Students Into Smart Hires

Tell us about the Building and Construction Technology program at UMass Amherst — what are your goals?

Our focus really is in preparing our graduates for a career in building construction and sustainable building systems. We empower the next generation workforce to not only land great jobs right out of school, but to transform the construction industry. As part of our teaching philosophy, we focus on hands-on work that helps them build the skills they need to be valuable in the workplace on day one.

With some of our graduates, we’ve seen that they become the technology leaders in their firm or rejuvenate an older department or initiative with the fresh thinking and knowledge that comes from their courses with us. Most of our students will work in a software- and technology-based environment, so we see it as our duty to get them started as early as possible, with as many applications as possible.

What sets the UMass BCT program apart from similar programs at other universities or colleges?

Several things, I think. First of all, most students that are studying the built environment are working together in one building — the John W. Oliver Design Building, which happens to be one of the first academic mass timber buildings in the country. It’s an exciting building to be in, and it helps facilitate the inter-disciplinary learning that we like to do. In addition to our program, it is home to the departments of architecture, and landscape architecture and regional planning.

The John W. Oliver Design Building on the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus. Source: Leers Weinzapfel Associates

We are a program in the Department of Environmental Conservation, so many of our courses are centered around sustainable building. Just as construction practices and materials have evolved over the years, so have younger generations. They are pursuing careers that focus on sustainability. Our program gets them ready to work in a green construction industry and to lead positive change towards a more sustainable planet.  

Another thing that’s unique about UMass is our partnership with Trimble. We were the first Trimble Technology Lab in the world. It really comes in handy when we are integrating construction technology into our curriculum. Students can access and learn core tools that the industry uses. That way they can jump in immediately to 3D modeling or laser scanning, for example, when they start their careers. They can be productive and valuable on day one, and they understand more about the real intricacies of doing the work. 

Lastly, there’s a lot of construction happening in our area. Our students have many opportunities for field work and internships where they get to see the real world versus the academic world. It’s exciting for me to see the students engaged in what they are learning.

How did this partnership with Trimble Technology Labs come to be and what challenges were you looking to solve with Trimble’s participation?

It really started as an idea, ‘How can we get our students to experience top technology while they’re studying, and learn the construction methods they will be exposed to in their careers?’ 

I’ve worked a lot with SketchUp [Trimble’s 3D visualization and modeling software] in the past and that was the jumping off point for the partnership. Trimble provided us with a multi-year guarantee for access to several software and hardware products that now allow us to integrate many  new topics into our curriculum and research projects.

It’s not just tech for tech’s sake, but about using Trimble technology to get our students to think differently and learn concepts that the tech opens them up to.

Students work on a 3D visualization project in the Trimble Technology Lab.

Walk us through a typical lesson — what kinds of construction technology are your students learning?

We’re big on problem solving and project-based teaching. Sometimes students don’t know yet which technology they’re going to need to solve a particular problem, but the Trimble Tech Lab gives them access to those resources.

For example, when we look at laser scanning, we engage folks from archeology, historic preservation, and design, in addition to construction. Then we can expose the students to a certain type of task within their discipline. Just two weeks ago, we used the TX8 laser scanner in my BIM course to scan and process a point cloud extension, and then use it to create a 3D model.

Students definitely get more learning on hardware and software related to their areas of concentration — the global positioning system for geoscience students and SketchUp for landscape architects. Our architecture students this semester used Sefaria [Trimble’s building performance analysis software] for their design projects, which was cool because they were able to analyze energy performance within their designs. 

A lot of our design students use SketchUp too, because it’s such an easy software to get into and it’s really powerful. I introduce SketchUp very early to our students in the materials methods course, where even before they have taken a 3D modeling course, they get to put together building parts. This is where things start to click for them — they can make the connections between 2D plans and a 3D model, and start thinking about how buildings come together in 3D. 

I use SketchUp in my BIM course as well, where I have students walk through the building they’re in and find details, anything really — a column, a floor intersection — and then go to a plan set, look that up, and model that as an assembly. They get to create a little mockup of something they walk by everyday and learn how it fits together. 

New groups or students are always coming to the Tech Lab and asking if they can try something out. Actually, this afternoon, I’m handing out a piece of equipment to engineering. We’re always finding new ways to use the tech in problem-solving and project-building.

Tell us about some interesting projects or ‘problems solved’ that your students have worked on.

One that comes to mind is a timber gridshell that a colleague of mine, Professor Peggi Clouston, built with a group of students a few years back. It was visualized in SketchUp, and that was part of the planning process, and then it was built for real. 

We have a group of graduate students called UMass Air that works mostly out of the engineering department, and they used drones, thermal imaging, and the Trimble R10 a few years back to survey the campus for suspected building leaks. 

There was also a research project led by one of my colleagues that was focused on integrating parametric design methods with the building performance analysis in Sefaira. They ended up establishing a framework that would work with a variety of BIM softwares.

The final assembly of the UMass gridshell that students modeled on SketchUp and then built.

It’s no secret that the AEC industry struggles to hire and retain talent. How are programs like yours a solution for that challenge?

Our career fairs are very popular. Large and smaller firms participate and use them to quickly identify candidates that have a solid background in the skills they are looking for — such as materials, methods, and construction management. These firms know that our students have been exposed to newer technologies that they might never have used in any other program. We always make a point to the students to highlight those skills on their resumes.

It’s hard for older firms with established employees to adopt these technologies. It might be easier for them to hire someone right out of school who has just learned about something new and can actually implement it. 

We see it with all sizes of firms — many construction firms are wrapping their heads around virtual reality, augmented reality, and all of those things. If you have a student who’s been a gamer with virtual reality and understands the basics of construction, they have an ‘aha’ moment where they say, ‘Hey, we can use this for construction too.’ One of our graduates actually is now one of the higher up VDC folks at a large firm.

What do your students love about learning with these construction technologies and where do they see themselves in the industry?

Many times, my students will say, ‘great, that’s cool,’ when I teach them something and we do a few exercises. But then they use the tech again on their own, and maybe a few months later they’ll come back to me to show me what they did with the tech during their latest project or internship. They are so excited to implement the tech and it’s such a great moment. They feel the gratification of having learned something and then being able to apply it, and maybe even shine because they are the person that understands this cool technology. 

That can also be when a student realizes that they are marketable. They start to imagine a future where they put ‘3D laser scanning’ on their resume and get hired because they have an in-demand skill.

Students learn how to use the Trimble R10 to layout UMass Amherst’s 2019 Commencement. Source: UMass Amherst.

The students you’re teaching today are going to be the leaders of the industry. What do you think that implies for the future of construction?

The most obvious implication is that construction is changing and some of the industry inefficiencies are going to go away. We couldn’t get to a lot of these inefficiencies before, we didn’t have the right technology. But now we do and the more our students get into leadership positions, the more accelerated the change will become. Some of our students go on to work at larger firms where they might have the capital to push technologies a little differently than smaller firms. But again, sometimes just bringing fresh blood into a small firm can really change things.

What is the future of the Trimble Tech Lab at UMass?

Because my entry point was through SketchUp, it’s been interesting to see the rest of what Trimble does. I have attended several Trimble Dimensions conferences now, which allowed me to see that there are a lot of possibilities. 

We’ve been trying to use Vico Office [Trimble’s 4D-5D BIM software] in our estimating class, so we can show students deeper levels of BIM through model-based estimating and scheduling. It’s very complex, so we haven’t gotten too far yet on the undergraduate side of things. We see it as a better fit for our graduate students and faculty doing research. 

We’re always training the trainers at the TTL, because there’s always an undergrad or grad student who is really into technology and they push as far as they can with something, they become the expert, and then they inevitably leave. So we ask them to make videos and training documents to hand over with the equipment to the next group of trainers. Keeping the knowledge moving on is a challenge but crucial to our future. That’s something we have in common with the AEC firms out there and another big reason our students get scooped up — they help carry knowledge forward.

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