CSU Construction Management draws on strong industry partnership with RK Mechanical for creative course delivery during pandemic

Outdoor class in front of RK Mechanical trailerDuring a normal semester, the Department of Construction Management typically offers “boot camp” short courses taught by industry partners with faculty oversight. However, this semester has been anything but “normal.” One industry partner rose to meet the challenge of leading a full course elective for CM students.

Partnering with industry professionals

This fall semester, “CON 471-Project Management for Mechanical Systems,” was taught by a CM alumnus, Matt Powell (’05), formerly of RK Mechanical, a business unit of RK, and co-led by Leah Lewis, of RK. Powell has been “in and around” mechanical contracting for 18 years. As a senior project manager, he’s been fortunate to work with incredibly talented field personnel across an array of challenging projects. He said most of his career has been spent on the Operations side of construction, although he truly appreciates any opportunity to be in the field, learning from tradesmen and women.

Matt Powell
Matt Powell

Powell has spent most of his career working on industrial/mission critical facilities: hospitals, semi-conductor facilities, laboratories, higher education facilities, and data centers. Powell said, “Having managed mechanical subcontractors from the owner perspective and general contractor perspective, I try to communicate to our teams the importance of being a positive team member, trade partner, and active participant in fostering positive change and progress on the project.”

Leah Lewis
Leah Lewis

Lewis has been with RK for 13 years, primarily working in operations as an executive assistant. “At our company, an operations executive assistant is a little different,” Lewis explains. “We touch nearly every project that moves through our company. Assisting with document management, job cost maintenance, fixing errors, entering project information, and many more little tasks that might be required for a successful project.” A little over two years ago, Lewis moved into learning and development to begin training in RK’s various business units.

Operating within the confines imposed by the current pandemic has changed the scope of teaching for this course. Lewis comments, “We had to change from the original format. It also took away some of the cool things we wanted the class to experience due to limitations on facilities and general contractor restrictions. We were able to bring our training trailer, but had to cancel the welding lab and job site visits.”

Powell noted that preparing to teach the class online, when guest speakers are such a valuable and vital component, has been a challenge.” Fortunately, they were able to preserve in-person learning where the impact of active industry members can be maximized during guest lectures. “We have focused intently on front-loading the field practical lab as well as course content that is best delivered from those currently in the industry, not knowing when classes could return to remote learning.” said Powell. “I am learning along with the students about flexibility and being prepared for the unexpected. Certainly a challenge, but if anything defines construction, it is constant change and finding solutions to problems proactively!”

Class goals and outcomes

The desired outcomes for the students are clear in wanting them to:

  • have a better understanding of specialty subcontracts, as well as some of the tasks they might experience;
  • recognize and understand the effort required to build a project, such as shifting a schedule item and realizing this means people doing the actual work that has shifted – not just a graphic on a screen;
  • understand what being a good trade partner really means;
  • value relationships – on site and off;
  • feel excited and more aware of what it takes from a mechanical contractor’s perspective to complete a project.
Matt Powell of RK Mech with student, outdoors
Matt Powell instructs student

Asked what advice they would offer any CM student, Lewis said, “One of the biggest things I hear from our summer interns is that they ‘never’ saw some of what we would consider important aspects. Students should stay open to opportunities from specialty subcontractors as well as general contractors. Even though that might mean more field time, the experience will be invaluable to your career.”

Powell added, “It’s imperative that we remember how much effort and skill it takes to build a project. Men and women in the field put an enormous amount of work into what they do. When a schedule item shifts or scope changes occur, those are not just changes in ‘paper space.’ Our job as a subcontractor is not simply to be a subject matter expert for our trade, but a true trade partner and active participant in the success of the entire project, not just our specific scope of work.”

Student reactions were positive.

“The project management for mechanical systems taught by RK Mechanical is a great class,” said Justice Rosales, CM senior. “This class shows what we will be facing when we enter the industry. It is a very comforting class, because we speak with real professionals, and learn their experiences and how they overcame challenges.”

Evan Gregory, CM senior, said, “I’m more than happy that I ended up taking CON 471. It had to be one of the most informative courses I took in my time at Colorado State University. It was incredible to talk to experienced industry personnel every week, and have open discussions about construction management at all levels. I also think it is important for all students in the CM degree to know about the subcontracting side and what it looks like to manage the trades.”

Lewis and Powell represent well the goals of RK that state, “Our work and expertise across multiple industries allows us to be a premier partner, creating and executing specialty, professional solutions from start to finish. RK’s relentless pursuit of innovation allows customers to see their greatest concepts become reality, trusting RK’s exclusive design and building methodologies, backed by accredited, safe and professional execution.” They served as great industry partners in leading this course.

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