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Management Training: AEC firms bring students into the real world

Students benefit substantively from internships offered by AEC firms.

April 21, 2020 |
VT students virtual reality project

Virginia Tech students and faculty experience an on-campus construction project virtually. Courtesy Virginia Tech Shani Sharif.

Schools of construction at universities are, in some ways, academic versions of trade schools, providing students with hands-on experience and post-graduate job opportunities.

At Virginia Tech, every new on-campus construction project holds back a piece of the contracted work for faculty and students to deliver. On March 19, 2020, 70 students and officials from Hourigan Construction toured an outpatient pavilion that Hourigan is building on VTU Health’s campus. Another contractor, W.M. Jordan, recently gave VT students and the dean of student affairs a virtual reality demonstration of a 600-bed dorm under construction, which overlayed what the completed rooms and amenities would look like.

Through this immersive experience, “we’re hoping to show them more than what they could learn from a textbook,” says Brandon Renick, a Virginia Tech grad who is an Assistant Project Manager with W.M. Jordan. 

The relationship between industry and academia, however, can include the classroom. Over the past two years, one of the more popular courses offered in the Master’s program at Columbia University’s School of Civil Engineering has been guided by a syllabus assembled by Skanska USA’s office in New York, says Paul Haining, the firm’s Chief Environmental, Health, and  Safety Officer. Several of Skanska USA’s executives, including its President and CEO, Rich Kennedy, have been guest lecturers for that course.

Students also benefit substantively from internships offered by AEC firms. Debra Pothier, Autodesk’s Senior AEC Construction Strategy Manager, points specifically to a student at the University of Texas in Austin who, as an intern, worked closely with Autodesk’s data sciences, product managers, user experience designers, and developers to assist in the development of Autodesk Construction IQ. That student, says Pothier, helped the team develop machine learning algorithms, and conducted research with construction customers and real-world construction data.


Virginia Tech Students with a construciton robotShani Sharif first came into contact with her current employer, Autodesk, while she was a doctoral student at Georgia Tech’s Digital Building Lab. Courtesy Virginia Tech Shani Sharif. 


One student’s professional journey

Academia is, without question, industry’s farm system. Skanska USA provides subject matter and lecturers to Columbia’s online Coursera platform that reaches 265,000 students. Skanska uses this as a survey pool and to attract future leaders to its firm. (A dozen of those students now work for Skanska, says Haining.)

Since May 2017, Shani Sharif, 38, has been a product line manager for Autodesk in San Francisco. Her journey to that job began about 10 years earlier, when she left her native Iran (where she earned a degree in architectural design and practiced for four year) to come to the U.S. to study computational design at MIT. She later entered Georgia Tech’s PhD program, and one of her first projects there was to develop a Masonry Unit Database for the BIM for Masonry initiative (BIM-M), which Sharif says gave her an appreciation for what’s needed in the field.

At Georgia Tech, she came into contact with Autodesk and that company’s collaboration with the university’s Digital Building Lab. She interned for the company during the summer of 2016 as a software developer, during which she created a workflow and defined set of rules for digital fabrication logic. Autodesk liked Sharif’s work, and recruited her. 

Sharif’s intention, upon graduation, was to teach. She had already applied for a couple of teaching positions. Sharif had also been recruited by Katerra. Ultimately, she chose Autodesk, where she also works in Industrial Construction. (She will defend her PhD thesis on robotic fabrication this spring.)

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