Featured in BIM Task Group Newsletter 18th Edition

Author: Alison Watson

The students who presented their Design Engineer Construct!® projects at this year’s BIM Show Live are, without a shadow of a doubt, incredibly inspirational to all who meet them.

These articulate, brave young people demonstrate the raw ‘get up and go’, ‘can do’ mentality that should be bottled and sprayed around the staff room and offices of school and organisations.

So let’s track back a few years. What was the hook that became Class Of Your Own, and why do we believe that the resulting mechanism for educating young people about the built environment is more progressive?

“The seed was sown on the day I arrived at a school in Hackney – my first day on a topographical surveying contract for the government’s Building Schools for the Future programme. As I set up my robotic total station in the middle of the yard, I could hear the noise from inside the building, and believe you me – robotic surveying is fast, but somehow a little faster when the prospect of the morning break is imminent.

I got caught out, that very first day, and learned a tough lesson. Don’t start setting up the prism station at when the bell is about to go…to my horror that morning, with my back to the total station at the other side of the playground, 1000 teenagers burst out of the doors and, like bees to a honeypot, this £25000 piece of kit was taken over. There was such a crowd around it, I could only just make out the sorrowful tracklights blinking at me in abject terror.

There is no warning that comes with a school survey. Common sense tells you that there are certain rules to follow regarding health and safety and safeguarding, but there is nothing in the book to warn you about dealing with a thronging mass of teenagers faced with some fancy robotic kit. Maternal instinct took over (that TS was my pride and joy), and I belted across the playground to protect my precious cargo. But someone else got their first. “Back off or it’s detention for the lot of you!!!!”

My saviour was a teacher who roared these words across the playground and immediately the waves parted to let me through. I was immediately bombarded with questions. “What’s dis fing Miss?” “What does it do?” “It’s a camera, innit?”

I started explaining, demonstrating what ‘dis fing’ did, letting them have a go, and found myself having fun with these streetwise kids. Their excitement and curiosity was exhilarating, and over the next few days, I really looked forward to seeing them at break time. They asked lots of questions about my industry, and were enthusiastic about the science, technology, engineering and maths a construction professional applies to his work every day. I realised that BSF could provide a great learning opportunity for these kids, and that people like me were really useful not only on site, but also in the classroom.

However, the months went by and I found myself talking to many more and more students and their teachers in secondary schools around the country, I discovered that the learning opportunity in actual fact manifested itself generally during the design consultation stage, typically consisting of a couple of days (at the most) of cursory inclusion.

Some of the more ambitious schemes still only involved a small number of the more gifted and talented young people. I was astonished that engagement sessions did not recognise the value of including young people in the pre and post-construction phase. I went out of my way to find out what careers young people knew about the construction industry.

They told me about ‘builders’ and ‘bricklayers’ at one end of the scale, and ‘architects’ at the other. A few quoted alternative careers, such as ‘fence erector’ and ‘kitchen fitter’ because “it’s what my Dad does”.

Clearly, there was a huge career awareness gap.

In October 2008, as the construction industry went into recession and my phone rang less and less, I joined forces with Architect Dan Gibson whom I’d met through a job I was working on earlier that year, and we set to work writing practical resources and workshops for schools whereby students could really get to grips with the different roles of construction industry professionals. We called this workshop ‘A Class Of Your Own’.

The workshop introduced young students to a few of the technical and management professions needed to create their own ‘Eco Classroom’. This Classroom had to help their school and its local community to learn about living a more sustainable life. By choosing an appropriate role via a questionnaire,  children became Land Surveyors and, by turning the hall into a building site, mapped topographical and orientation information.

Architects and Engineers determined the shape, structure and orientation of their building, researched appropriate local, sustainable materials and renewable energy sources, and developed a sketch scheme.

Landscape Designers researched biodiversity and  appropriate landscape features, and designed an  outdoor space which would complement the  classroom design.

And finally I introduced the  Management Team – a Director, a Sustainability  Officer, and a Marketing Manager – all challenged to reinforce their sustainable aims to the school community through reports, logos and mission statements.
This workshop, which was delivered with colleagues in industry, became quite popular, and as  more and more schools got in touch, we realised we were onto something.

With the help of academics in the field of pedagogy in secondary education – and specifically applied learning – we set about writing a curriculum that focused on professions, introducing a  series of units which introduced the fundamental principles of sustainable design, community consultation, planning, FM, procurement, engineering….and BIM. Except that at the time back in early 2010, we introduced the concept that all the different disciplines worked happily together, that there were no silos – everyone worked in exactly the same way as children naturally do…as a team.

The strong desire that every student should be able to construct and evaluate their designs found me knocking on the door of Autodesk. I believed that if kids could handle Call Of Duty and Grand  Theft Auto – running around virtual environments shooting the enemy and racing cars, they could handle the 3D world of virtual design and construction.

Following a demonstration by a group of Accrington students to one of the leading software vendors, whilst en route to an international school of architecture competition in the US  (which they won) we got authorisation to pilot our programme in 10 schools across the country,  from the Highlands of Scotland to inner-city  Manchester.

Industry needs to work harder with education –  that’s secondary, further and higher – to ensure that the kids are learning not just the theory, but also the practice and the real-life application.  Young people may well romp their way through technology, but they still desperately need the voice of experience to pin them down and say  “Yes, young Johnny, you can drive a piece of software better than I’ve ever seen, but can you do the maths? Do you know why you choose x wall type over y? Will that roof still be there in a Force 9?!”

Professionals in schools can offer life experience,  inspiration and an awful lot of anecdotes and  sound advice, and this is needed so much now that schools have a responsibility to source their own careers advice. Feedback from young people and teachers is that external services are generally ‘rubbish’ so they’re turning to the web,  but a well-known student placement website for jobs in construction is no better. The search engine which allows you to pick ‘all jobs’ under the sector ‘construction/maintenance services/trades’  puts ‘cleaner’ and ‘labourer’ alongside ‘Quantity Surveyor’ and ‘Building Surveyor’.

The answer lies not only in raising awareness and creating exciting, engaging industry-specific resources but critically in educating the educators as they are both the barrier and gateway to industry awareness. No one has told them about our industry – our vast, exciting, incredible industry for which Britain remains highly respected throughout the world. They are often in education from cradle to grave and have little opportunity, never mind time, to explore what is out there in the ‘World of Work’.

“Our first meeting with teachers often has them puzzled – they too think construction is all muddy boots and brick trowels. That makes thousands of individuals who really don’t understand the Built Environment, and therefore the kids never get a look in – unless they, of course, are ‘low achievers’ or ‘the naughty ones’, and then, as is so often perceived in schools, construction colleges offer a drop-in for the dropouts.

Our industry needs to be seen as both vocational AND academic, and requiring a good brain in either case. It needs to be seen as the major employer that it is and given the credibility it deserves in the classroom, and from a young age.

“We have a very real problem, and we need to empower teachers to do something about it. The students who work through the Design Engineer  Construct! programme are enthused and excited by our industry, as the kids on the podium demonstrated a couple of weeks ago. They are  NOT the problem. If a teacher does not have to contextualise their subject and does not have to understand how they can integrate professional/employability skills into their lessons, then they won’t. They don’t have the time. It’s as simple as that.

Architecture, Engineering and Construction needs greater recognition if my industry is to remain British and best. We need young blood and more of it. I have nothing against international students and employees – diversity, tolerance and acceptance is key to a collaborative, peaceful, economically stable world – but British education is still regarded as the best in the world by many countries and yet, if only they knew, Britain major ‘lost generation’ problems. Unless we can encourage teachers and senior leaders to sit up and listen, get excited, but more than anything, understand that they hold the key to enlightenment, the demographic timebomb will explode.

We’re about to help get the balance right. Design Engineer Construct! is now a recognised qualification that offers teachers and learners the opportunity to develop a range of skills and knowledge fundamental to successful engagement in the professional aspects of the Construction and Built Environment sector of industry.

It offers a new and innovative project-based approach to learning that is both challenging and rewarding with learners developing knowledge and skills by undertaking a sustainable building project and, through the complimentary workshops, have guaranteed face to face engagement with industry professionals. There are many opportunities for cross-curricular learning including explicit opportunities for Maths, English and Science as well as for other aspects of the wider curriculum such as Citizenship and PHSE through the embedding of a wide range of employability skills.

Organisations can get involved with schools through a new scheme which is endorsed and supported by some of the industry’s most respected leaders.

The COYO School Adoption Scheme will:

  • Establish a joint programme that enables industry members to “gift” the Design Engineer Construct! suite of linked qualifications and
  • industry/academic opportunities to schools across the UK through a not for profit organisation
  • Reinforce the presence and support of sector skills councils, professional institutions and association
  • Forge stronger links with progressive universities through Peer Assisted Learning schemes and student support, educational visits and
  • experiential opportunities thereby providing a greater awareness of academic routes to employment
  • Encourage young people who are currently under-represented within the sector such as girls, ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Highlight the critical role played by architecture, engineering and construction technicians
  • Guarantee employment opportunities through a coordinated network of apprenticeship schemes and vocational initiatives for every student that completes the curriculum to Level 3 (age 18) thereby enabling companies to meet their local, national and international
  • employment needs
  • Increase the number of companies, from SMEs to large organisations, appreciating the benefits of apprenticeships, and so committing to providing places
  • Raise the aspirations of young people, their parents and their schools, to consider the Construction Industry as a valuable, attractive proposition for future careers
  • Offer opportunities to teachers through mentoring/ CPD programmes, progressive training schemes, workshops, seminars and work
  • placements and offering nominal funding to cover teachers where necessary
  • Develop and support the knowledge of BIM technology and processes in schools
  • Allow British industry to take the lead in bridging professional skills gaps and inspire thousands of children to “think like Engineers” by investing and supporting schools in their locality

The Building Information Modelling (BIM) Task Group are supporting and helping deliver the objectives of the Government Construction Strategy and the requirement to strengthen the public sector’s capability in BIM implementation with the aim that all central government departments will be adopting, as a minimum, collaborative Level 2 BIM by 2016.

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