Logo: University of Southern California

Innovation in the Construction Management Classroom

USC Viterbi and Virginia Tech Students Collaborate via Cyber-Platforms

February 08, 2010 —

How do you adequately capture the intricacies of a real-world building project — in a USC classroom?

Start with the basic, multidisciplinary classroom project with building information modeling (BIM) at its core. Then pile on layer after layer of complexity, draw in a group of industry mentors, factor in some role-playing and employ cyber-technology to pull in another university’s top engineering students.

Viterbi students in the foreground, with Virginia Tech students (onscreen) conferencing in via cyber-technology.
That’s what Burcin Becerik-Gerber has succeeded in doing with her semester-long course “Building Information Modeling for Collaborative Construction Management,” which centers on the case study of two environmentally-friendly college campus building projects.

BIM — which focuses on data management during the life cycle of a building’s concept, design and construction phases — is being hailed as no less than the solution to the building industry’s fragmentation and inefficiency, as well as issues relating to cost and interoperability.

“Indeed, one of the hottest questions in the architecture, engineering and construction field at the moment is how to achieve technology-enhanced, BIM-based collaboration,” says Becerik-Gerber, an assistant professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Becerik-Gerber knew she’d need an engaging, interactive course that would bring together students from multiple disciplines within engineering. She wanted to collaborate with another university, so that the process would simulate the professional world — where engineering, architecture and construction teams often come together at the beginning of a project as strangers.

“In the same way, we wanted a bi-coastal challenge where students don’t know each other prior to class and there’s a three-hour time difference,” says Becerik-Gerber. “They are new to the team, environment and client, and they must overcome organizational, procedural and technological barriers every time.”

So she reached out to a former Harvard University Ph.D. classmate. Kihong Ku, with whom Becerik-Gerber shared a faculty adviser, and who is now on the faculty of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VTech).

Becerik-Gerber and Ku designed a course that would place USC and VTech students in multidisciplinary project teams to simulate the engineering and construction process for actual projects.

Mentors from industry would help facilitate class functions. Industry mentors include individuals from both universities’ facilities departments; the design and engineering firms Urban Design Group, Gregory P. Luth and Associates and Smith Group; and from the construction firms Skanska, Hathaway Dinwiddie and Hensel Phelps Construction Co.

Viterbi students Daniel Camin and David Kang introduce their Virginia Tech counterparts (onscreen).

Becerik-Gerber and Ku also arranged for sponsorship from various software and consulting companies, which contributed free software, training and technical support. The sponsors include Autodesk, Graphisoft, AEC InfoSystems, Solibri Inc., Digital Vision Automation and Horizontal.

Astani Department Chair Jean-Pierre Bardet, says the course gives students the unique experience of problem-solving for the building industry at the level of real-world complexity.

“The 21st century engineers and construction managers must be able to deal with a rapid pace of technological change and a highly interconnected world,” says Bardet. “Prof. Becerik-Gerber has managed to bring all that, with a multidisciplinary approach and real-world intricacy, under the same roof.”

Students applied for entry to the course, and each was interviewed for their mix of skill, background and personality. In the end, 12 USC students and 12 VTech students were selected.

The 24 students would be divided into four project groups, with each pairing three Trojans with three VTech students. Each team would have a student serving in one of the following roles: architect/engineer, project manager, cost engineer, scheduler and construction manager.

The task at hand? Designing and engineering optimal solutions to a construction management case study of two USC and VTech campus projects.

The projects would capitalize on information technology and students’ individual strengths: problem-solving from engineering students, design from architecture students, and schedule, cost, quality control and overall management from construction management students.

Prof. Becerik-Gerber in the foreground, with co-professor Ku onscreen in the background.
Together, the teams would model, estimate, schedule, and perform sustainability calculations and code checking functions with different tools. The course would also focus on learning BIM authoring skills and other cutting-edge building industry technologies.

The course is groundbreaking in that it brings together the elements of role-playing, team collaboration and bi-coastal and virtual collaboration. “There’s also the aspect of ‘learning by doing,’” says Ku, “and the fact that you don’t often see students from different engineering disciplines in the same classroom.”

Indeed, this course places mechanical engineers, architects, civil engineers and construction management majors together in a team environment.

Employing technology of the Viterbi School’s Distance Education Network (DEN) – which enables students to pursue their coursework online — USC and VTech students would together follow software tutorials and lectures, present team findings, and participate in group discussions.

By providing a cyber-learning platform to enable these students to work together, USC and VTech students will be able to test ideas and become innovative practitioners rather than just students of the craft, says Becerik-Gerber.

The course started with a bang.  Should it collect rave reviews, Becerik-Gerber has plans to bring in the USC School of Architecture and another university from the United Kingdom for what she calls “collaboration around the clock.”

“That would bring in a third time zone, and even more cross-disciplinary collaboration for Spring 2011,” says Becerik-Gerber.