Building Science Curriculum Features Service Learning

BSCI Service Learning @ Field Lab

In the spring of 2020, the McWhorter School of Building Science (BSCI) received a Special Recognition Award from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) for outstanding community service carried out through the school’s Construction Field Lab course.

This hands-on service learning course connects students with local non-profit organizations to develop and execute community-based construction projects. Dr. Scott Kramer, J.E. Wilborn Endowed Chair and Professor, was surprised to learn that Auburn’s program considerably exceeded AGC’s requirements: “When I filled out the application for the award, I realized that they’re set up for a university to do one project a year—we’ve been doing 14 a year!”

In BSCI 4360 Construction Field Lab, a senior-level graduation requirement, students work in teams of ten students and one faculty advisor to create built solutions to issues facing non-profits. Organizations are invited to explain their missions and present their proposals to the student teams who then choose a project that aligns with their interests. The students on each team complete a combined total of 600 hours of planning and building during the semester. At the end of the project, students present their work and share the experiences and lessons they learned from serving others. Kramer says that this course is valuable preparation for professional life since so many construction firms participate in community service projects. He believes Auburn is one of the very few construction schools in the nation with a service learning course as a graduation requirement. Drew Holland, a 2021 BSCI graduate, said that the class was a great way to end his academic career. “I really liked getting out in the field and taking a step away from the classroom,” he stated. “You get to see how your classes translate. I enjoyed getting out there and building relationships with the team and the client.”

The Curtis House
The Curtis House, an Opelika non-profit that offers community-building activities, has been a long-term partner with faculty in the field lab course. Over the course of several semesters, BSCI students have built a house on the property as well as an outdoor pavilion, a structure that came in handy for outdoor gatherings and block parties during COVID-19. Kramer believes that, in addition to doing construction work, it’s important that students be involved with the community, so BSCI sponsored a build-a-birdhouse class for students to interact with local children. Cameron Mercer, a 2021 graduate of BSCI, said that interacting with children in the community is an important part of the class. “I hope we had an impact on the kids, but the big impact was what the kids were able to do for us,” he said. “There were a lot interested in swinging a hammer, and I saw myself in that. They did a good job at quality control!”

Kramer came to learn about The Curtis House several years ago from Brian O’Neil, an Auburn alum and executive director of Third Lens Ministries. O’Neil helps non-profits navigate design-build projects and in turn helps Kramer identify suitable projects for the field lab class. “Back in the spring of 2020 we did the foundations and the framing but had to stop when COVID-19 hit,” Kramer said. “Brian and the Curtis House asked us to go back and finish building the house. I’m really proud of our students, jumping back in the game.” In Fall 2020, students finished the work that had been paused, framing the house during the fall semester and then completing the roof, siding and windows in spring 2021.

Auburn-Opelika Habitat for Humanity
Another long-term partner is Auburn-Opelika Habitat for Humanity. While building an entire house is too large a project for a single semester, Habitat for Humanity make preparations that allow for framing a house using two teams of students. When they arrive on site the first day, Habitat staff already have building permits secured and the house’s foundation and slab completed. The students then build the walls and erect the roof trusses in collaboration with Habitat supervision. “Materials are delivered and equipment is in place, so the pressure is on the students to complete their phase of the project by the end of the semester,” said Kramer. This past fall semester, the students were able to prefabricate the interior and exterior walls in the Robins & Morton Field Lab and then deliver and install them to Habitat House #70. With this new method, two teams can frame a house in the fall semester and another team can do the siding, windows and roof in the spring.

In fall 2020, students were able to start using the new Robins & Morton Construction Field Lab at Auburn University to support their work on service learning projects. Made possible through a generous gift of more than $1.3 million dollars from construction management firm Robins & Morton, the construction field lab features a high-bay building with four bays, two of which are fully enclosed and protected from the elements. 

Kramer says that the new facility lab has been a game changer for service learning in the school. “Because of the field lab we are now able to prefabricate walls offsite, which increases quality, efficiency and productivity,” he stated. “It’s also a great teaching tool to expose our students to this process, because prefabrication and offsite construction are becoming a larger part of commercial building now.” 

Prefabrication and Samson’s Strength Sustainable Veterans Project
With this increased level of efficiency, the school was able to take on projects in a broader geographical area and began working with Samson’s Strength Sustainable Veterans Project (SSSVP) out of Lineville, Alabama. This grassroots organization runs a 115-acre working farm in Clay County that includes a collection of footprint houses, no larger than 850 square feet, for military veterans who are struggling with homelessness or joblessness. BSCI faculty realized that they could prefabricate wall panels for the project in the Robins & Morton Field Lab, slightly modifying the design to fit on trailers for transportation. Over a four-day weekend, the students traveled to the farm in Lineville where they built flooring, erected the walls and installed roof trusses. “We have proven to ourselves that offsite fabrication can really work in a service learning class,” Kramer said. “We are not just limited to Auburn and Opelika.”

“We could collaborate in Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery or Atlanta,” Kramer said. “We have now completed two Habitat houses this way, and our recent project in Lineville, Alabama, really solidified our ability to construct a Habitat-type house outside of Lee County. This opens up the possibilities for collaborating with builders and companies outside of Auburn.” Since many companies are already working on service projects within their communities, this type of industry-academic collaboration would give Auburn faculty a vetted project and would give companies access to Auburn students. It would also give BSCI students the opportunity to create relationships with builders and to learn from working industry professionals.

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Service Learning

Related people:
Scott Kramer, Mike Hosey