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Professors Roundtable Gives Insight on Successful Studios

Professors from around the US and Canada came together in a roundtable discussion during the PCI Convention to discuss what makes precast concrete programs successful. A few themes emerged between the professors who shared some of their experiences. 

Program Creep

Once the program at the school begins, it often extends into other parts of the curriculum. This may be because students will need an introduction to precast topics prior to getting into an intensive program, and because faculty becomes more aware of what the precast concrete industry can offer a school. Typically, instead of learning about precast concrete in just one class, student will begin to learn about it in other introductory classes. They will also hear “word of mouth” talk about trips and projects done in the program, which often leads to the studio becoming more popular. 

Tours and Hands on Work is Key

Several professors noted that university budget shrink has made it more difficult to support tours and off-campus trips. And not all tours are created equal. If a “hands on” portion can be worked out, students find it most memorable. In many cases, students are able to create small pours that they then come the next day to strip and finish. 

If casting isn’t possible, allowing students to see drawings of the pieces in the plant, and helping them understand how those pieces fit within the overall scheme of the structure is also helpful. One plant gave students a BIM demonstration in order to show students how our industry is incorporating that technology. 

Students can also see inserts, connections, insulation, aggregate, formliners, and other materials from PCI suppliers who are usually willing to send them to schools for students to see and feel in person. 

Additionally, some plants allow for “open hours” where students can come and visit the plant and have questions answered by engineering or plant personnel. “We have an especially strong relationship with Metromont because they worked with us on the solar decathlon,” said Brett Tempest of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Our students know their way around that plant like they work there. Those relationships remain critical to our other classes.

Dealing with the industry is a learning experience for the faculty and students, and the same can be said for industry personnel dealing with academia. Most of the professors who attended the program stressed that having “desk crits” (one-on-one time with students in a development phase) has been the most productive way for industry pros to spend time with students. This allows them to understand the development of the students ideas, and to point them in the right direction early on in the process. 

“It was a learning experience on both sides. I figured out the students want to learn about precast, to know the material and understand what it can do. They also want to push boundaries,” says Matt Shea of the University of Washington “Students want to try things that haven’t been done before, which is part of the innovative side of what we foster in the studio environment. There is a level of discomfort on both sides while you are setting that up. The review format was too formal. This year, we’ve gone to desk crits and using them as a consultant, sitting with the students for an hour at a time at their desk, with the drawings, working through these ideas. That has been more productive. At the final review, everyone will come together and see these designs. We will have an exhibit event so they will get to see the results of it. “ 

It is possible to integrate precast into multiple departments

Several schools working with the PCI Foundation have used an integrated approach to teaching precast concrete. The approach taken varies with each school, and depends on the curriculum needs of the school, interest of the professors, and the support of the administration. “In getting these studios started, the relationship with both with the champion faculty and with the administration,” says Peter Finsen, executive director of Georgia/Carolinas PCI. “Start the relationship with the deans and the chairs, especially when we have both departments. They may have met each other in, but they don’t always know each other. Getting them together to work those relationships.” 

“I think that one of the most beneficial things in this program for engineering students is seeing a design starting from a blank slate. We never do that in our classes,” says Tempest. “We start by putting a 30 ft beam on the board with a triangle on one end and a circle on the other end. They are not used to the idea of starting from nothing. Students learn that there is actually a different starting point for design that we haven’t had a chance to show them yet.”

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