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Auburn University’s McWhorter School of Building Science

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Auburn University’s McWhorter School of Building Science (BSCI) is shaping the future of the construction industry one student at a time. With a practical yet innovative approach to education, the program equips graduates with the necessary foundation to become successful leaders in the industry.  “Through its innovative academic programs and commitment to student success, the McWhorter School of Building Science continues to strengthen Auburn’s reputation and prominence as an outstanding land-grand institution,” said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Boosinger. “Our students are fortunate to have an innovative group of faculty who are not only committed to preparing them for the traditional landscape of their profession, but also to cultivating the next generation of industry leaders by engaging them in emerging disciplines. Together, BSCI faculty and students are able to make meaningful contributions to the industry that also have a positive social and economic impact.”
Educating tomorrow’s construction management leaders is nothing new for the university. The BSCI program was established in 1947, making it the second oldest construction program in the United States. Over the years, the program—which is part of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction and housed in the M. Miller Gorrie Center—has graduated more than 3,000 students, many of whom lead and manage major construction firms around the world today. “Our graduates come out of school ready to go to work,” said Paul Holley, a professor in the Building Science program. “Because of that, the demand for our students could not be stronger. We have students accepting job offers months before they graduate.”
In the program, students learn many elements of construction management, including specialized training in estimating, scheduling, project management, safety, information technology, surveying, sustainable construction and structures. The broad-based curriculum prepares students to understand all areas of the construction industry. “Learning so many parts of the industry will give them empathy for the people and the relationships they will have when they are managing on the job,” said Ben Farrow, Aderholdt associate professor. “If they understand what a laborer is really dealing with in the field, they will be better prepared to talk about schedules, budgets and timeframes. They will really understand the issues their workers are dealing with on a daily basis.”
In addition to a rich curriculum, the BSCI program provides invaluable hands-on experiences outside the classroom. “We call it engaged learning,” Farrow explained. “It’s our way of giving students intense exposure to real industry projects and problems.” A few years ago, program leaders instituted a field lab on campus where students could actually apply what they are learning to real-life situations. “We believe hands-on opportunities are an integral part of the learning process,” Holley said. “So, for example, when we teach a structures class not only are we in the classroom doing calculations but also we have students in the field lab doing hands-on activities to learn how formwork is assembled. A class on electrical and mechanical systems will dissect air conditioning equipment and learn how commercial power and light circuitry is assembled. It’s an experience that helps future managers really understand the trade work they will be involved with managing.”
While the field lab plays a significant role in a student’s experience, the opportunities for engaged learning in the BSCI program doesn’t end there. Students also have the chance to join competition teams. The teams are presented with a problem by a construction firm and the students must figure out how to solve the problem. “Students spend concentrated time trying to solve a particular problem, whether it’s figuring out what a bid amount should be, how to pour concrete on the job or how to make a proposal to an owner on a design build project,” Farrow said. “They basically have 24 hours to put together their ideas for the project and make a proposal.”
During both the fall and spring semesters, the BSCI program’s competition teams compete against teams from other schools across the country and even internationally. “We are proud of the fact that we do more competitions than most other universities,” added Richard Burt, McWhorter endowed chair and school head. “We were one of two universities that competed internationally during the last fall semester, and the student team coached by Paul Holley took the top prize.”
Another valuable option the BSCI program offers students is the opportunity to study abroad. Every year, students can choose to go all over the world to practice construction management, from Australia to Ecuador. “Construction is a global industry, and it’s very much the case here in Alabama,” Burt said. “Two of the largest builders of U.S. embassies and consulates are Alabama-based, and we have students who pursue careers building internationally. We feel students gain a lot in education by learning about construction methods and techniques used in other countries, as well as adjusting to what daily life is like in those countries.”
With so much focus being placed on providing a strong foundation of classroom study and engaged learning opportunities, the BSCI program completes the educational experience with its strong emphasis on research. Students receive significant opportunities to participate in various research projects being conducted by faculty members during their time in the program.  “That has really changed in the last 15 to 20 years or so,” Holley said. “We have faculty that are doing some really amazing research as it relates to technology and innovation.”
One particular research focus in the BSCI program is 3D modeling. To build 3D photogrammetric models, unmanned aerial systems are being used to take photos of existing conditions of construction projects to capture imagery that is used to construct the models. The university is working in collaboration with a number of general contractors and other companies. “For example, unmanned aerial system were used to inspect glass on the exterior of a facility that Brasfield & Gorrie constructed a few years ago,” Holley explained. “They wanted to know the condition of some exterior glass so we were able to use the system to perform a pilot study of how to use unmanned aerial systems instead of putting people on stages on the outside of a building.”
As part of the project, faculty members are researching high definition laser scanning and photogrammetry. “These are both new technologies that are used in different disciplines but are relatively new to construction,” said Junshan Liu, an associate professor who is working on the projects. “We are trying to identify applications of this technology in construction because we believe it’s a new trend that would be great for the industry.”
Graduate students are assisting on the research project, and other students are learning about the concepts during classes. “I give my students presentations on the technology we’re researching,” Liu said. “While they won’t necessarily use the technology in the program, I like introducing the concepts and why we’re looking at them. It’s something they will probably see in the near future and we want them to be familiar with the ideas.”
The school’s Center for Construction Innovation and Collaboration (CCIC) also conducts research. The center was established a few years ago to focus on innovative and collaborative approaches to real problems related to construction products and processes. The CCIC brings together faculty, students, industry representatives, product producers and others to formulate effective and innovative solutions. A significant focus of the CCIC is Studio+Build, an academic program that combines the subjects of Building Science and Industrial Design with problems supplied by end-users and manufacturers to solve real industry issues through prototype and product design. “The Building Science programs have contributed to and have been influenced by the strengths of the other programs in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction—specifically, the Architecture and Industrial Design programs,” said Vini Nathan, dean and McWhorter Endowed Chair. “Such sustained, collaborative efforts have yielded signature initiatives such as Studio+Build and the Integrated Desig and Construction program.”
One particular product that started in the Studio+Build program has made significant strides and has actually been patented by the university. Darren Olsen, a BSCI associate professor, has led the charge on development of a product that allows for a measurement to be taken at 90-degrees from a baseline with a tape measure. “It all started with one of our student teams looking at a particular problem in regard to plumbing penetrations and concrete slabs and looking at how to improve the layout process and add precision,” Olsen said. “I took the idea and have worked on it and now we’re to a point that a company is looking into commercializing the product.”
While the future of the product has yet to be determined—the university is still waiting to see if the company will enter a license agreement to product the product—Olsen is focused on what these research opportunities are providing students. Thus far, the school has received two patents with more than 60 still pending. “We’re really proud of the progress students are making on various products in the program,” he said. “Studio+Build has been great for the students and the faculty. I really believe the students like having the challenge placed in front of them of fixing a historic problem in the industry, and the faculty is a great source of research. So it has been a good relationship.”
Holley is currently serving as interim director of the CCIC, which previously was run by Steve Williams, a professor who recently retired and is now Professor Emeritus. “Steve really started the Studio+Build process,” Olsen said. “He really encouraged me to further some of the products that have been developed in the program. He really pushed us in the right direction regarding research.”
The BSCI program is making a name for Auburn University in the research world, and that name is continuing to grow thanks to the school being chosen as host for the 2016 International Symposium for Automation and Robotics in Construction International Conference (ISARC). An annual event that discusses how technology is affecting the construction industry, the conference will draw approximately 150 people from at least 35 countries. “This is the first time we have held an international conference,” said Anoop Sattineni, associate professor and chair of distance learning. “Hosting this conference will really showcase what we’re doing here. We’re constantly recruiting faculty from all over the world, and we want everyone to see Auburn is a supportive environment for research in construction.”
The forward-thinking research and well-rounded educational experience provided by the BSCI program is due in large part to the great relationships the school maintains with various companies in the construction industry. Program leaders continuously seek out input and guidance from industry leaders to make sure the educational foundation students receive in the program is what the industry needs. “We’re nothing without our industry,” said Burt. “The bulk of what we do here is focused on developing future talent for the industry. We have an industry advisory council we work closely with to make sure we are producing graduates that fill their needs. We are always listening to what our industry says about the jobs they must fill and the skillsets they need.”
In fact, program leaders will be reaching out to the industry over the next few months to discuss how the current curriculum is equipping students of the next generation and making sure it’s what the industry needs, said Farrow. “The relationship with industry is what really drives our program,” he added. “The close connection we have and input we get on an ongoing basis makes a difference to students. They see it and know the industry is involved and that makes it relevant for them.”

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