Students work closely with volunteers from industry to gain 'hands-on' training.

Building bridges between education and industry

Constructionarium, a hands-on engineering and construction experience that allows students to work under the simulated conditions of a site, gaining key experience and meeting with industry professionals, celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, its development was to support practical learning and experience.

How Constructionarium began

The idea came together through talks with Imperial College London’s academics and industry partners, which included Expedition Engineering’s Chris Wise and Ed McCann, and John Doyle Construction’s Stef Stefanou and Peter Goring. Professors were frustrated by the lack of construction-realism in the students’ design, noting that construction process awareness was missing. So, working together, they developed this residential course as a way to give the students the experience and skills they were missing by sitting in a lecture hall.

“Imperial professor Chris Wise highlighted that students didn't understand the realities of what it takes to build a design. If they didn’t understand the realities of construction then they’d be prepared to design unbuildable things,” says Alison Ahearn, principal teaching fellow at Imperial’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and co-founder of Constructionarium.

The importance of understanding constructability

“It was about moving from fantasy design to creative design, and to do so they had to understand constructability. Wise made a presentation to industry explaining that this couldn't be taught in a classroom or solely by academics and asked them what they were willing to do about this skills gap. The idea grew from there.”

The event may have started as a building exercise on the university green, but over the years has grown to something much bigger. Currently Constructionarium uses a 14-acre block of land at the CITB Training and Development College at Bircham Newton, Norfolk, of which four acres have been terraformed for student projects.

2013’s Constructionarium creations

This year students built a nuclear power station’s containment structures and a Naples Canopy: a shaft for the escalator into the underground tube station to be built at Naples airport, plus the weather canopy at street level end of the shaft. Teams also constructed a 20m version of the Millau Viaduct, a 10m concrete swing bridge based on Kingsgate Bridge, Durham and a four storey version of The Gherkin – one tenth the size of the original, but without the glass cladding.

In teams of around 20 they had to delegate work and were involved in everything from design and costing through to building and problem solving, experiencing what life is really like on a construction site.

Supported by industry, they deal with working engineers who volunteer their time to oversee, assess and work with the students on their projects. This is a great opportunity for sharing knowledge as well as making contacts.

Applying theory

“It’s being able to apply all that theory, you get to see the overall picture. We saw colleagues develop throughout the week as they grew into their roles and worked as a team,” says Chloe Goulding, an MEng civil and environmental engineering student at Imperial.

“I also gained some great people skills. Being a project manager (for the Naples Canopy) I had a problem on the second day where I felt like the team’s morale was quite low. I had a half hour chat with one of the industry volunteers, and he gave me some really useful insights into how I could get the team going.”

“These people came straight off their own site to help us for the week,” adds fellow student Liam Noad. “They had real experience under their belt and gave us a direct comparison to what it’s like to be on-site.

"Just getting on-site was a highlight for me,” he continues. “We've been sitting in a classroom for the past two-years learning about building a structure. Seeing an actual construction site and literally being put to work was great. The majority of us are aiming to work for consultancies, and actually being able to understand when you’re drawing, what that will mean to people on-site is just massive,” Liam says. “We’re only two years from being in the industry and we need to get that understanding as soon as possible.”

Bridging a skills gap

A great example of how industry and academia can work together to bridge a skills gap, the idea of Constructionarium has grown and now over 15 universities use the site to host their own Constructionarium events.

“We pioneered it here at Imperial but now around 16 or 17 universities now take part,” says Alison. “At Imperial it’s compulsory for our second year students and counts towards their degree, but other universities make it optional or an elective that counts for coursework. Some make it aspirational – for example the University of Leeds only lets its top 50 students attend – you’ve got to work your way onto it.”

Nuclear Island Big Rig

Other organisations have also picked up on the idea including Cogent – the Sector Skills Council for Chemicals, Nuclear, Oil and Gas, Petroleum and Polymers. In 2011 Imperial started running power station construction projects at the request of Cogent and the nuclear power station new build sector. This has evolved into a standalone residential course of its own entitled Nuclear Island Big Rig.

Simulating conditions of a nuclear-licensed site, over five days a team of 20 students take on the role of contractors responsible for the fit out of a nuclear power station. Armed with a set of drawings and a kit of parts, students will have five days to assemble, cold-test and disassemble the mock PWR system.

“Employers tell us that they want graduates with a mix of technical knowledge and employability skills, or softer skills such as project management, demonstrating initiative, working in a team and the ability to complete tasks to deadlines. Not only does the Nuclear Island Big Rig deliver these much sought after skills but for most of the students taking part it is their first opportunity to put their theoretical knowledge into practice,” highlights Clive Smith, Strategy Director for Nuclear at Cogent Sector Skills Council.

Simulated and hands-on training is becoming a popular technique for developing employability skills in high-risk industries and it’s great to see projects like these evolving and growing in number. Not only is it a great way to experience likely ‘real-world’ issues within a safe controlled learning environment, it also gives students something to help them to stand out from the crowd when applying for jobs.  

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