For the Department of Construction Management, spring semester 2020 started the same as any other semester. However, by the end of the semester the academic programs at Colorado State University were significantly impacted by the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
After spring break in March 2020, all CSU classes shifted to online. Soon afterwards, a few CM student interns were told their employers could no longer continue supporting internships due to economic conditions that quickly impacted the construction industry. This was the first indication that construction management’s long-standing required internship program might be facing some challenges.
Additionally, CM is committed to ensuring CM students remain healthy. The majority of the industry sponsors were able to work with students and have them either pause their internships, or work from home for a few weeks while the industry scrambled to create office and jobsite-specific COVID-19 safety plans and procedures to create healthy work environments.
After working with students through the end of the spring 2020 semester, and into the first six-weeks of summer, out of 146 total students needing internships in summer 2020, the CM department was left with nine that were unable to complete an industry-based internship. Of those nine students, three lost their opportunities late and were not able to find replacements; three did not have anything lined up before COVID-19 hit, and were then unable to confirm something; and three opted out for health reasons of their own or loved ones with whom they lived. The Department committed to providing an alternative experience to these nine students to fulfill their internship requirement, focusing on developing the hands-on experience and knowledge that would normally be obtained through a traditional, onsite internship.
The virtual internship
CM faculty Anna Fontana, internship coordinator, and Nick Rubino, instructor of field management, were tasked with creating and facilitating the virtual internship during the last four week summer session. One of the imperatives that came out of planning for the virtual internship was the need to find an industry partner to provide current project information and on-site access, around which to create course content. At CSU, the Department of Construction Management is extremely fortunate to have a great relationship with the University’s facilities management team. Fontana reached out to Tracey Abel, supervisor of capital construction at CSU Facilities Management to see if there might be an opportunity to partner on a current CSU project for the purpose of the virtual internship.
Abel immediately jumped on board and identified a project that would fit well with the virtual internship concept. She worked with the project’s construction management firm, Tetrad Property Group, and the team met to discuss the needs of the virtual internship and begin further planning. CSU Facilities Management and Tetrad Property Group provided all the drawings and specifications for the project, and shared access to their on-line live feed link as another resource for the class.
Throughout the course the virtual internship team hosted several on-line synchronous sessions. The team introduced the mentor component as well and set expectations for what that meant.
Students met with their mentor weekly to discuss the course topics and ask questions as needed, to understand course content and complete assignments. Other on-line synchronous sessions were conducted with the project participants, including CSU Facilities Management and the Hausmann Construction team to discuss how they addressed site specific factors, COVID-19, and how Building Information Modelling helped the team resolve design conflicts on the current project as well as other projects. The course also included an on-site visit to gain a more direct understanding of the project’s scope and operations.
As a testament of the experience gained by the students as a result of the virtual internship, the following comments were made by both the students and industry participants:
Student responses to: To the extent possible, do you feel the course successfully brought on-site experiences into the virtual environment?
- Having videos or meeting minutes made me feel like I was actually there at the meeting. Doing RFI”s gave me the experience like I was actually problem solving like a real employee.
- Yes, especially with opportunities such as the site visit, and an individual mentor.
- Yes I do! Watching the OAC, Sub meetings and BIM meetings, allowed us all to feel like we were there and get a good understanding the importance of these meetings as well as how they are executed.
- Yes. The circumstances are difficult and less than ideal but I felt this replicated real life work in the best way possible.
Student responses to: Overall, do you feel having a mentor enriched your experience in this course?
- [My mentor] helped me with this course but most importantly, helped me prepare to start my career.
- Having a mentor gave me a deeper understanding of the construction industry. Being able to meet-up face to face, and tour a site with the ability to ask him questions from a student perspective, not an employer perspective, was very relaxing.
- Definitely, I had someone to turn to with any questions regarding the course, or my future in the industry.
- Absolutely, the mentor was the most valuable aspect of this whole process.
Industry mentor responses to: Overall would you say being a mentor for this Virtual Internship Course was a good experience for you?
- Yes, I do enjoy teaching and mentoring. I oftentimes find I learn just as much as the mentee.
- It was good to be able to spend one-on-one time with a specific student.
- I enjoyed being a mentor and doing anything I could to help out.
- Yes, I really enjoy interacting with students any time I can.
While no one wants circumstances that require offering the virtual internship course in the future, as there is no true replacement for an industry-based internship, the virtual internship was a good representation of the activities to which onsite interns are typically exposed.