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Where the classroom is a construction site: creative approach to engineering education short-listed for top prize

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-Royal Academy of Engineering website
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By Laura Gallagher
Monday 3 April 2006

A hands-on approach to construction for engineering students was among six projects praised for innovation in education at an awards ceremony last week.

The Constructionarium, where students take control of their own construction sites, was short-listed from 26 entries for the Educational Innovation Award by the Royal Academy of Engineering and BNFL. The team from Imperial College London, which designed the project along with partners in industry, narrowly missed out on the £10,000 prize but was presented in the Academy's symposium as an example of national best practice.

Students taking part in Constructionarium work together in teams of twenty or thirty, replicating real life projects

Constructionarium enables Imperial engineering students to run their own construction sites, managing a construction project from start to finish, and working in all roles from chartered engineer to general labourer. The students experience real risks, allowing them to rehearse the power and responsibility of making decisions that determine the success or failure of the project. They also learn first-hand how to manage the physical risks found in the construction industry.

Each year, eighty students spend a week at the facility based at the National Construction College in Norfolk, replicating real life projects and working in teams of between twenty and thirty. The teams are briefed by a client who negotiates contract terms and they can also gain advice from contractors and consultants, for a large consultancy fee. Marks are awarded for management, cost control, technical quality and safety.

Professor Julia King Opens in new window, Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London, said: "At Imperial we're committed to exciting and inspiring our undergraduates. Constructionarium is an enormously valuable and motivating experience for the students involved. It allows them to take the skills they have learned in the classroom and put them to the test in a real life environment, on complex construction projects at a realistic scale. Constructionarium is a truly innovative idea and we are really pleased to have been short-listed alongside such fantastic and different projects."

Constructionarium enables students to run their own construction sites, working in all roles from chartered engineer to general labourer

For Constructionarium 2005, students dammed an 18 metre valley by building a 4 metre high wall and a spillway. Other projects built have included a swing bridge, a communications tower, an oil rig, and an athletics stadium's grandstand.

Alison Ahearn Opens in new window, from Civil and Environmental Engineering, who helped develop Constructionarium, added: "We've created the ultimate outdoor classroom. Students have to master all the logistical and technical difficulties of running a successful construction project, and manage their way out of problems. We keep getting enquiries from industry enthusiasts and other universities: it's great that what we've been doing at Imperial is inspiring so many people."

Constructionarium was set up in 2003, and has received £250,000 worth of industry funding already. The government is now providing £500,000 to develop the site's terrain to create bigger challenges for students. The scheme is expanding via a not-for-profit company and more universities are expected to join in 2007.

The University of Southampton's "Design build test fly float race", where students fly a model plane, 'float' a speedboat and race a mini car which they have designed, built and tested was the winning entry in the competition.