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Students collaborate using software

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Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) is hoping its BIM group exercises will bring the next generation of engineers, architects, construction managers and surveyors closer together and working smarter.

The UK Government’s Construction Strategy of 2011 demands “fully collaborative 3D BIM… as a minimum by 2016” throughout the industry.

Now, five years later, many university students are learning a suite of software by their final year, including Autodesk, Revit, Navisworks, Strusoft, IES and Asta Powerproject.

But it’s in collaborative classrooms where LJMU believes real success is being had. Civil engineers work on a BIM simulation for up to a week, with students from construction management, building services engineering, quantity surveying, architectural technology, building surveying and real estate management.

Part of the thinking behind the program is for students to gain an appreciation of the differences between each profession, perhaps giving them an edge when it comes to joining the workforce.

Civil engineering senior lecturer Jayne Dooley is overseeing the radical project. Dooley says she graduated two decades ago, when there was hardly any crossover between architects, engineers and other streams of study.

“I didn’t even really know about construction management or the other disciplines,” she says.

There were challenges to bringing in the group work, from administration and timetabling to allow all students across each programme to attend; hardware and software issues; staffing and, most importantly, student engagement.

Dooley says the students – from diverse backgrounds – arrive with differing amounts of computer literacy, while teachers often have to learn the software as they’re teaching it.

“There’s some students that will take half an hour to learn something you’ve boxed off for an hour, and others that take a lot longer. It’s quite hard to plan for in a time-sense.

“Obviously technology and software has moved on massively since I graduated. We had CAD Lite 11 and we had a few lectures on that, and that was as far as it went.”

Dooley says whether or not students have to learn the traditional technology of sketching with pencil and paper, is “a bit of contentious issue”.

“I do make my students do a bit of drawing, because employers have said they do lack these skills, so we are trying to bring these back in. Because you’re not always going to have a 3D model out there on site to explain something.”

While licences for building-related software can be upwards of £6000, Dooley says it’s standard practice and an indispensable skill to learn.

Rather than taking jobs away it’s going to mean doing more projects, more quickly.

Jayne Dooley

While better software bring better productivity, interestingly, there has been some debates in the classroom about whether automation through software will make some jobs obsolete.

“There was a massive discussion around quantity surveyors in particular, because traditionally they have taken information, played it off a drawing and given a bill of quantities,” says LJMU senior lecturer Sian Dunne. “And now that can all be done automatically through Revit. You ask the program how much linear metreage of cladding on this job is required for this job and it will tell you at the touch of a button.

“But what the software wont tell you is how it gets erected, how it gets fixed, whether it needs a breathing membrane. So you still need that technical expertise,” says Dunne.

Dunne believes software’s true role is to make construction cheaper and faster.

“One reason the government wants BIM used widely in the UK is they want buildings built 50% quicker, as they say in their 2025 strategy. So I think that’s where it comes in, rather than taking jobs away it’s going to mean doing more projects, more quickly.”

An inclusive vision of collaboration

The lack of women choosing to become civil engineers is a subject Jayne Dooley is very passionate about.

“When I was at university, there were 90 in my year and nine were women, so 10%. I’ve taught classes here with no women at all. I think on average we get about 5% women.”

Dooley says more collaboration, more software, and more female engineers, naturally all go hand-in-hand, with women often better collaborators than men.

“Out in the industry, there’s very little number crunching – most of my job involved going out and meeting people, deciding on solutions, getting the public on-side, and a lot less about the maths and science side. We do need our maths and science… but there are more ‘softer’ skills, organisational skills, required, and, generally speaking, girls can be much better at that.”

The senior lecturer says a broader, less stereotypical portrayal of how the industry works would help change perceptions.

“We’ve been pushing the wrong way in some respects – whenever you see an advertisement about women in STEM, you see a girl in a hard hat and fluorescent vest, and that doesn’t appeal to most girls. I never went to work dressed like that. And most of my job involved talking to people. And I don’t think people get it: that’s what the majority of the job is.”

The university does outreach projects, getting local high school students in to work on engineering projects. But Sian says girls’ interest in STEM needs to be established in primary school.

“We wait until they’re in their A levels or GCSE’s to persuade them, but by then they’ve already got an idea what they want to do with their lives.”

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