CM gets creative moving online during pandemic

Like every other academic department on campus and around the country, the Department of Construction Management was faced with all the usual – and some more unusual – challenges of moving to online instruction and virtual operations. How does face-to-face, hands-on teaching transition to remote, online presentation? Many of the department’s faculty engaged their creative juices, and worked hard to maintain, and even improve, the students’ course experience.

CM’s Mehmet Ozbek, interim department head and associate professor, summarizes the department’s ability to rise to the challenges with which they were faced. With a very short timeframe to manage the move to online, Ozbek notes the resiliency of the CM faculty and staff:

“From faculty who had a ‘three-day course recording marathon’ over the weekend before we moved to the ‘remote operations’ status, to another who facilitated ‘virtual construction site visits,’ to another who was able to hold live online course sessions with industry members’ participation, to others who had to work at night to be able to record their lectures after the little ones at home were asleep – CM faculty, once again, showed their dedication to our students and our program.”

Getting creative

Here are some of the ways and means that faculty, with very limited time to prepare for such a major change, engaged students in online learning:

Mike O'Reilly
O’Reilly filming lecture

“The transition to online teaching has been an adventure,” says Mike O’Reilly, Senior Instructor.  Not knowing what the coming weeks would bring, he recorded all remaining  lectures for both Structures I and Structures II in two marathon sessions on the weekend before spring break. With support for video editing, O’Reilly was able to provide recorded lectures to students mixing sequences of him teaching with electronic versions of his lecture notes and calculations. “I miss the daily interaction with the students. There was nobody but me in the empty classroom when I was recording the lectures, which was just plain strange. I look forward to the fall semester, and returning to the normal face-to-face routine, as much as possible,” said O’Reilly.

Online capstone presentations-multi point video
Multi-point video CM capstone presentations

Senior Instructor, Brett Brown, empathized with his students in the Construction Management Professional Practice senior capstone course. Brown said, “From the onset of discussions about changing to remote delivery and moving classes online, I had a whole host of emotions that covered the gap between, ‘this should be fine,’ to ‘this will never work!’ I tried to consider what would work for me, but more importantly what would work best for the students. Of all the emotions, the one that resonated most with me was sympathy for my students. Most of my students are in the last semester of their college career; to not be able to spend that time interacting with my teachers, peers, and friends is not how I would have liked to end my college career.”

In preparation for the transition to remote learning, he tackled it like any other problem one might face in their careers: understand the goal, create a plan, execute the plan, and last but most importantly, be flexible.  “My goal for the completion of the semester was to keep it as normal as possible, stick to the original course outline, and remain interactive with the students,” he said. Brown was able to facilitate virtual meetings that allowed each student group to give their final project presentations online together, along with a panel of judges grading them and asking questions, and all their peers watching.  “I am proud of what everyone has been able to accomplish to keep the learning going. I hope everyone – faculty, staff and students will look back at this time as being a crisis we were able to overcome together, and we will all be better for it someday.”

Nicole Dufalla teaching online
Dufalla teaching online

Being a new instructor in her first semester at CSU teaching Construction Materials and Methods, the spring semester was very different than Nicole Dufalla could have imagined. She comments, “One concern I heard from multiple students was that lectures could be prerecorded and online, but they wanted to ensure they would still be able to see the physical material samples. Seeing the actual materials was beneficial to the CON 151 students, many of whom haven’t seen these materials before.”

Duffala was committed to maintaining strong and clear communication with students and keeping consistency in the course. Recorded lectures were supplemented with videos, where the physical material samples discussed in lecture were demonstrated. “Overall,” she said, “I certainly believe that this class was easier to convert to an online course than many others. An unexpected benefit was realizing that this class could benefit from using a hybrid approach going forward, especially for utilizing more of a flipped classroom to free up in-person class time for constructive field trips, and hands-on activities.”

One of the main goals of the Introduction to Construction Management course is to expose students to the wide variety of opportunities in the construction industry, as well as give them some sense of what it is like to be on a construction project. The move to online learning posed some interesting challenges for the two assignments that specifically address these goals: the Industry guest speaker presentation, and the project site visit.

Jeff Wilkes, Senior Instructor, explains, “Typically, students would attend one of any number of industry guest presentations hosted by the various student groups throughout the semester. With in-person events cancelled, students were given the opportunity to attend webinars on a variety of different topics ranging from construction drone technology to sustainability. One presentation, ‘Day in the Life – Construction Careers,’ was particularly meaningful because it was organized by a CON 101 student, Dominique Pinedo, and her Women Engaging in Construction industry mentor, Alicia Ready, from Bryan Construction.”

Kuula project overview online
Virtual site project overview

The project site visit posed a different set of challenges since students would not be able to physically visit a construction project.  Wilkes worked with Skanska’s university relations to develop a virtual site visit of one of their projects. Skanska uses an information sharing tool called Kuula to post photos and video of the jobsite’s progress, and CM students were given access to this platform.

The virtual site visit was divided into two parts: a virtual tour, and a self-guided photo “scavenger hunt.” For the virtual tour, members of the project team narrated a 360-video site walk, pointing our various interesting elements on the jobsite. For the scavenger hunt, students had to search through the photos and answer questions relating to topics learned throughout the semester like site layout, safety, and construction means and methods.

Field Management project photo on jobsite
Field Management online project

Field Management is a course within the curriculum that allows students to use hands-on approaches to understand basic means and methods, and how details get constructed. Transitioning to remote learning required new approaches needed to be taken to facilitate and engage the students. Since hands-on approaches were not practical in this application, course instructor, Nick Rubino, utilized site photos and problem statements to help further the students’ ability to understand the general contractor’s role in coordinating field operations. One such example was the plumbing lab assignment; the problem statement was taken from a job currently in progress and, as such, photos were available to help guide the students in coordinating the conflicts.

From here to there

“Similarly, our staff has been amazing,” said Ozbek, “finding creative ways of advising students and keeping them engaged, addressing the concerns of our students who were on internships during the pandemic, and putting together a mini-yearbook for our Spring 2020 graduates, as well as shipping each one of them their well-deserved, CM RamBuilt hardhat, so they can start proudly wearing it – a CM tradition that would normally take place during the university commencement ceremony, which, unfortunately had to be cancelled for spring 2020.

All these efforts by our faculty and staff and their ability to quickly adapt mimicked Construction Management – a profession which, many times, requires one to act quickly and professionally to address challenges. As such, it was an important example we set for our students, and thus an invaluable learning experience for them as they get ready to start working in this great industry. As importantly, it was a great example we set for ourselves that we could rise to the challenge when we work together as a department, no matter how difficult the circumstances may be.”

The Department of Construction Management is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.