Aim high: building construction site for students comes to Scotland

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Civil engineering teams down textbooks and pick up tools, as they recreate landmarks

No one would trust a doctor who qualified without examining any human beings, or an airline pilot who knew all about aerodynamics but had never flown a plane. So why do civil engineering and construction courses prioritise theory over practical experience?

That rationale drives Constructionarium, an ambitious scheme in England, which in 2003 introduced the UK construction industry's first building site for students. Last month, the scheme came to Scotland.

Over two five-day stints, 43 civil engineering students threw aside textbooks and waded - in unsummery weather - onto a 1.5-acre site in Bathgate to build structures based on Barcelona's famous Torre de Collserola and Sheffield's Millennium Galleries.

Catriona McLaren, who has just finished her Higher National Diploma in civil engineering, was project manager of a team from Glasgow's Stow College, which provided most participants; others came from Strathclyde University and Glasgow's Russian twin city of Rostov. "Although we'd done technical drawing, we'd never really had to interpret it," recalls the 29- year-old, looking back at the creation from scratch of a nine-metre Barcelona-style tower.

The time-sapping fiddliness of working on a building site is something she had never appreciated before: discovering that something did not, as instructions insisted, fit neatly into a certain hole; raking around a shed for alternative parts when plans went awry.

The trickiest work coincided with a day of constant rain, when students impressed the company that provided the site. "I fully expected to have to go to their hotel and get them out of their beds," says Dunne Group construction director, Andrew Sibbald, who found the team on site and ready to go at 7.30am.

"It was tough going, but these are problems you're going to face," says Miss McLaren. "It was a real team effort - everybody wanted to get out there and see it finished."

No one was idle on this building site: some might be fitting an aluminium cage around a concrete column, while others were digging foundations and pouring concrete, and an aspirant quantity surveyor was working out a revised budget with a laptop on his knees.

Two-thirds of the Stow College class of about 45 took part, even though it was not mandatory; others could not get out of part-time jobs. "It's the only real practical work we've done, other than testing materials in a laboratory," says Miss McLaren, explaining her keenness.

Mr Sibbald professes that veterans of Constructionarium are more likely to get a job with his company. Encouragingly for the industry, a 2005 evaluation by Constructionarium found that seven in 10 participants wanted to embark on a career in engineering, while only half had intended to before taking part.

Some have already started their new careers. Neil Miller, 20, who also worked on the Bathgate-Barcelona tower, has a permanent job as a technician at the Glasgow base of construction and engineering company Black amp; Veatch.

Constructionarium helped iron out elementary mistakes - he set the project back by repeatedly grazing against the delicate "dumpy level" surveying tool. He is now more confident about imminent work at a sewage-treatment works.

Constructionarium throws students in at the deep end, sometimes literally. At its base in Bircham Newton, Norfolk, they take on daunting challenges, such as making a concrete "oil platform" float in water.

The Constructionarium website bemoans the "wonky outmoded logic" that such challenges are best kept for the workplace, while educational institutions focus on theory. It says that sort of thinking is "based not on the needs of 21st-century engineering, but post-rationalised to suit academic career structures rewarded primarily through research". Undergraduates who can invert matrices and plot Mohr's circle, "astonishingly" can't tell the difference between a tunnel and a pipe.

Constructionarium's formation was fuelled by industry frustration, with building magnate Stef Stefanou, of John Doyle Construction, as its chairman. The frustration was shared by Brian Keenan, business development manager at Stow College, who saw glaring omissions in courses for civil engineering students: "They don't bore holes, they don't drill concrete - they don't build anything."

Mr Keenan was intrigued by Constructionarium and went to a conference in London in 2007, aimed at university students, but saw a relevance to further education. He helped a batch of Scottish students to go to Norfolk in 2008, and again in 2009, before Constructionarium took place in Scotland for the first time this year.

The Dunne Group offered "fantastic support", he says, ploughing in about 30,000; a foreman and engineer were allocated to the five-day projects and other staff such as crane drivers and scaffolders could be called on. Consulting engineers Woolgar Hunter and the Concrete Society also helped.

"Companies are getting involved because they see people coming out with real practical site experience and knowledge of health and safety," Mr Keenan says.

He has grand ambitions for Constructionarium. He retires shortly and will dedicate two or three days a month towards establishing 1.3 million for a permanent base in Scotland. Extra features will include water, because it was not possible to do the oil rig project at Bathgate, and accommodation for 60 people, as students had to stay at the town's Cairn Hotel.

On the final day of her group's project, Miss McLaren put up a spire that finished the tower, to cheers and applause below. Back at ground level, she said: "It's the real world - you've got to get out there and get on with it."

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