Tufts University

Building Blocks

ConstructionWhen is a construction site not just a construction site? When it serves as a classroom for budding engineers.

"This," grins Chris Swan, "is not your traditional course." That's an understatement. The Tufts associate professor's "Engineering and the Construction Process" class—in which a bustling construction site on Tufts University's Medford/Somerville campus doubles as an interactive classroom—is without precedent.

"I do not know of anyone else that's utilizing a site this way, and Tufts has never taught an engineering course like this before," says Swan of the class, which gives 12 undergraduate students front-row seats to the construction of Tufts' new music building and Sophia Gordon Hall dormitory. "The students get to see, from concept to close, how a building goes about getting constructed."

And the students are not just passive witnesses to the buildings' evolution. Under the direction of Swan and co-instructor Mike Skeldon of construction management company Linbeck—as well as 10 guest lecturers whose areas of expertise range from architecture to geotechnical engineering—the young engineers are using the site's ongoing transformation as a springboard for translating the theoretical into the practical.

And they can't get enough of it.

"Class is supposed to go from 3 p.m. to 3:50 p.m., but there have been times we've been out there [on the site] until 5 p.m., with students asking questions," recalls Skeldon, who holds a degree in architecture from MIT and has worked in the construction field for nearly 20 years.

"When we run over, they're willing to stay," agrees Swan, now in his 11th year of teaching at Tufts. "And if I say, 'Well, really right now class is over, but there's something happening on the site that we can go out and see,' they'll say 'Oh!' and jump up, and they'll stay."

"Last week, we were out there watching the first steel going up [for the music building], and the students got to ask a million questions that we would never think to bring up in just a traditional lecture situation," Skeldon adds.

Greg Fujita and Jackson Hewlett, both seniors and civil engineering majors, were two of those students. "Watching the steel skeleton being put in place is like watching a well-choreographed dance," an awed Hewlett remembers.

"[It gives you] so much satisfaction when you see the steel being installed and can say to yourself, 'I know exactly why the engineer decided to use that particular beam,'" Fujita adds.

In addition to understanding the reasons behind the particulars of construction, exploring engineering in such a hands-on context gives students insights into the way each detail affects the big picture.

"We're not learning how things should be—which is what most undergraduate courses consist of—but how things are, in a real-life setting, going on in real time," agrees fellow senior engineering major Jackie Kossman. "It's the real world."

View multimedia slideshows of the construction progress on Sophia Gordon Hall and the new music building:
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construction Sophia Gordon Hall construction New music building

"I do not know of anyone else that's utilizing a site this way, and Tufts has never taught an engineering course like this before," says Associate Professor Chris Swan. "The students get to see, from concept to close, how a building goes about getting constructed."

Indeed, it's not often that students have the chance to take a class that distributes personalized construction helmets along with syllabi, or that so closely links the classroom and the workplace. Usually, it's not until after they graduate that engineers gain such a comprehensive perspective on the areas where engineering, construction and other disciplines intersect.

One of those areas? The planning and preconstruction phase—or, as Swan puts it, "what happens before the first shovel is put in the ground."

"We had [Tufts University Vice President of Operations] John Roberto come in and give a presentation about how this or other projects at Tufts are implemented, from years prior to the first shovel in the ground," Swan explains. "We've never had a course that actually introduced them to [these developmental, financial and business issues] before they leave Tufts—it's a side of things that many engineers do not get a chance to see."

The students in Swan's class may not be used to the non-technical aspects of the construction process, but that doesn't mean they're not enthused by them. "It's not often that a student gets a frank, behind-the-scenes view of what goes on in the administrative sectors," says senior civil engineering major David Kramer. "When John Roberto came to talk about his work with Operations, I thought it was something that I would really want to do as a job."

Often, the preconstruction development phase lasts for years. And students have been given practically no-holds-barred access to those developmental ups and downs. That sort of candor in a contractor is a rarity.

"Not too many contractors or construction managers even want you to be there—I was not expecting full disclosure," Swan says. "But Linbeck has invited us to do this—I mean, there's no doubt in my mind that they could've closed the doors on us, and we would've been watching from outside the fence. They have been very open and very willing."

Where Swan's class takes place—and where he's sitting now—is a testament to that fact. The class meets twice weekly in a Learning Lab that's located inside the site's perimeter. Swan gestures toward the pile of white construction helmets in the back corner of the lab. "They even have the students' names on them. The fact is, the access to the site is almost instantaneous."

That instantaneous access is something that Swan and Skeldon's students appreciate.

"Whenever we go on site, we learn something new because there's so many different phases to the job," Fujita says. "Every single phase teaches me things that don't ever come up in our calculations, but are imperative to the completion of a building."

"It's been great learning about the progress that is being made on-site daily, and my interest has extended far beyond the classroom setting," says Abby Lillianfeld, a senior and mechanical engineering major. "I'll find myself stopping and watching the construction any time I pass by the site."

In order to foster that enthusiasm for the construction process with those outside the class, the Learning Lab will eventually serve as an information center for the public. "There's a very good opportunity for outreach," Swan says, adding that one of the class projects will be to develop written and visual aids to help "someone who may live right across the street from the site, but doesn't have an engineering or technical or science background" grasp the details of what's happening on-site.

The Learning Lab will also be used to reach out to even younger members of the community. Chris Rogers, director of the Tufts Center for Engineering Education Outreach (CEEO), views the ongoing campus construction as a "totally cool" opportunity to pique children's interest in engineering.

"I've never done anything at a construction site before with kids, [but] there's so much we can do," Rogers says.

He shares his belief in the construction's educational potential with Swan, who plans on carrying the course well beyond the end of the semester. The fact that the two buildings are at different stages of construction – with the dorm slated to open in fall 2006 and the music building set to open in 2007 – makes that possible.

"The idea behind developing the course was not to make it a one-shot deal," Swan says. "It was to develop principles and concepts that we can get across to students at any point in the construction process."

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer.

Extra coverage:
• Read an overview of the construction efforts from the May 2005 Tufts Journal.
• Read about plans to make Sophia Gordon Hall Tufts’ first "green" structure in the Fall 2005 Tufts Magazine.

This story originally ran on Nov. 14, 2005