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COVID accelerates experiential learning model at Daniels

After COVID-19 hit, most of us went in front of the camera. Eric Holt got behind it.

Outdoor construction management class

Eric Holt leads his class in an onsite lecture. Photo: Pete Ziverts.

Holt, assistant professor in Daniels’ Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, used the pandemic to fundamentally change the way he teaches his Construction Building Systems class.

With financial help from a COVID technology grant made by the Daniels Dean’s Office and technical support from the IT Campus Partnerships, Holt purchased audio and video equipment that allowed him to live stream weekly construction site visits to his students.

“Previously—since we don’t have a construction lab on campus—we used YouTube and other industry videos to show the construction phases and systems we covered in lectures,” said Holt.

“That approach wasn’t ineffective, but it also wasn’t interactive and it wasn’t much fun. You can only watch so many videos of saws and sawdust.”

The grant allowed Holt to purchase a portable AV production studio installed in a backpack. Using the hardware and a cellular data package, students visited construction sites virtually and had two-way interaction with their professor and construction company employees on-site via Zoom video conferencing.

“COVID shut us down—we were completely online,” Holt explained. “I justified the risk of field trips during the pandemic because construction is classified as an essential industry. Students got to experience first-hand the challenge that has been added to the built environment.

On-site construction management class visit

Photo: Pete Ziverts

“They need to see how the industry is changing and reacting,” he added. “The risks they experience on the field trips are the same ones they’re going to experience in their construction careers. It’s a real-world learning experience that can’t be replicated in a classroom.”

Beginning in January, Holt rotated his 42 students between on-site visits and live stream participation. Since then, he and his “crew” have conducted live streams every Thursday from Denver-area sites including a UC Health hospital project, two custom home builder communities, an International School of Denver addition and several multi-family projects.

Holt’s crew includes Patrick Orr, director of experiential learning, who directs on-site production. Orr, who has an expansive background in video and multimedia, also provided critical support working through the technology and hardware challenges of on-site streaming. Chloe Smith, a film studies major, captures the visits on video and edits them for online posting. Holt leads the class and monitors the Zoom chat feature, which allows remote students to ask real-time questions.

On a bluebird Thursday in May, Holt hosted six students on-site and 36 students via Zoom at Westridge, a community of solar-powered row homes being built in Wheat Ridge, a Denver suburb. The two-hour class was facilitated by Ron Stafford, quality assurance manager with Thrive Home Builders, which is building the project. Stafford took Holt’s class through each phase of the project from site preparation and foundation to framing, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, interior finish and close-out.  

“The labs have helped us develop relationships with a host of companies that have people like Ron Stafford, who are industry experts and love hosting students,” Holt said. “The companies see this as a recruiting opportunity, so they put their best people out there to tell a good story.”

Student reaction has been positive.

Construction management class visit

Photo: Pete Ziverts

“The use of the internet-spewing backpack, personal and boom microphones, and the Zoom chat genuinely made for an immersive experience,” said Russell Flournoy, a Master of Science student in real estate and the built environment. “This component of the course provides the invaluable experience of interacting with professionals, seeing construction sites in real time and helps students link classroom knowledge to what we are seeing in the field.”

According to Orr, who has helped faculty think through innovative ways of teaching and learning, Holt is on the cutting edge of experiential learning at Daniels.

“Eric’s approach acknowledges a new reality in higher education,” said Orr. “We’re moving from the classroom to an experiential learning model that uses multiple modalities of teaching and learning. The internet and streaming were already pushing that, but the pandemic really accelerated it.

“There are many use cases for Eric’s model,” said Orr. “This is just the beginning.”

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